Cisco readies next-generation router

The company is expected to announce its newest IP router at month's end, but analysts say they aren't expecting much of an immediate effect on the market.

New details about Cisco Systems' next-generation router are leaking out as the company prepares to announce the product at a May 25 event.

Cisco's new router, code-named HFR for Huge Fast Router, has been one of the most anticipated product announcements in the networking market. But analysts now say they don't expect the upcoming addition to Cisco's routing family to have much of an effect in the market right away.

For one, details of the upcoming product suggest that it won't increase performance much beyond currently available technology from rival Juniper Networks, which has been selling its ultra-high-end Internet Protocol routers for two years. Second, Cisco's first release of the product will likely be missing several key software features. And third, because the device leverages a new version of Cisco's operating system software, it will have to go through a rigorous testing cycle with customers.

"While Cisco's HFR appears to bring Cisco close to parity with Juniper in terms of a high-end offering, we believe that Cisco is late to the market and the company will need to convince carriers that Cisco's next generation won't be two years behind," Erik Suppiger, an analyst with Pacific Growth, wrote in a research note to investors Tuesday.

What has already been known about HFR is that it is a 16-slot chassis that supports up to 1.2 terabits per second of routing capacity. It's also the first router to support 40 gigabits per second interfaces, and it is the first Cisco product to use the new version of the company's Internetwork Operating System, which is based on a modular design expected to improve reliability and management.

Deutsche Telekom and Sprint are currently testing HFR. AT&T and MCI are also reportedly interested in testing it.

As the expected release date for the product nears, other details are leaking out regarding the first version's hardware design and software features. According to Suppiger, HFR is believed to take up a full 7-foot-tall telecom rack. And the upcoming product will have twice the routing capacity of Juniper Networks' T640 router, but because the T640 fits into half a telecom rack, the two products will offer roughly the same capacity.

"Cisco will likely incur an extended sales cycle throughout the first year after the release."
--Erik Suppiger, analyst,
Pacific Growth
Unlike Juniper's T640, however, the initial release of HFR requires a nonstandard telecom rack. Instead of fitting into the standard rack that is 19 inches wide, according to Suppiger, the HFR requires a 23-inch-wide rack. This is a nuisance for carriers because it would require them to replace their existing equipment. A second version of the hardware, expected to be released next year, will fit into a standard telecom rack.

The initial release of software for HFR will also be missing several key features, according to an unnamed source close to carriers testing the product. For example, HFR is not expected to support a full suite of Internet Protocol Version 6, or IPv6, offerings.

IPv6, which features an expanded address field, is the latest protocol used to direct traffic on the Internet. Support for the new protocol is critical in next-generation equipment because many government agencies around the world, including the U.S. Department of Defense, are requiring all products they buy to support IPv6. The initial version of HFR software will support IPv4 and IPv6 Unicast, the source said, but it will not support IPv6 Multicast.

Also missing are some features of multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) technology, the source said. For example, the first release of the routing software isn't expected to support MPLS virtual private networks. Full support of MPLS is considered critical, given that many carriers, including AT&T and MCI, are offering managed services to customers using MPLS technology.

Most of the missing hardware and software features are expected to be added to HFR within 16 months, but analysts say that even with these features, Cisco will not win new business right away. The real challenge for the company could be proving that the new software is stable enough to handle live network traffic.

"New operating systems frequently require a year of production operation before they are completely stable," Suppiger said. "Therefore, Cisco will likely incur an extended sales cycle throughout the first year after the release, except with the beta customers that tested it beforehand."

Meanwhile, Juniper has been shipping its T-series routers for two years. And the company says it has routers installed in more than 60 live networks that use equipment from companies such as BellSouth, China Telecom, France Telecom, Korea Telecom, Level 3 Communications and NTT Communications. The company also beat Cisco to become the sole supplier of core IP routers for the Global Information Grid Bandwidth Expansion project, which is sponsored by the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency.

Cisco could face increased pressure as Juniper prepares to announce the TX, a switching matrix that can be used to link as many as eight T-series routers to form a single large router. The concept of the TX was announced when the T-series was launched, but the company did not have the product fully developed. Juniper has not officially announced the availability of the TX, but analysts predict it will be released by the end of the year.

Except for a few well-placed leaks to the press, Cisco is tight-lipped about HFR. During the company's earnings conference call Tuesday, CEO John Chambers declined to comment on any "unannounced products."