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Cisco stays mum on 'huge fast router'

Cisco Systems introduces upgrades to its family of core routers at its annual analyst conference but sheds no light on plans for a next-generation product that many say is close to completion.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--Cisco Systems introduced upgrades to its family of core routers at the company's annual analyst conference here, but it shed no light on plans for a next-generation product many in the industry say is close to completion.

The updated routers announced Wednesday, known as the GSR (gigabit switch router) 12800 series, are incremental improvements to Cisco's existing 12400 technology. They use the 12400's heating and cooling system, in addition to its power supply.

With the upgrade, carriers can quadruple the capacity of their existing chassis by simply replacing the old fabric line cards with new ones, giving carriers 40 gigabits worth of switching capacity on every line card slot.

For years, industry experts have speculated about the next-generation core routing technology from Cisco, dubbed HFR or huge fast router. Even though Cisco executives have never acknowledged that such a product exists, engineers working at the company have confirmed that Cisco is working on an that will replace the current GSR.

The project has supposedly been stopped and started again on several occasions throughout the past four years, but many in the industry believe the company is close to finishing the product. Some had expected it to be announced sometime in 2003. But the lack of information Wednesday likely means the product launch is not imminent.

"I doubt that Cisco will make another big router announcement for at least another year," said Sam Wilson, an analyst with JMP Securities. Some analysts had speculated that more details regarding the product would emerge at the conference.

Not much detail is known about the ultrasecretive HFR project. But many believe the new architecture will be highly scalable, linking several chassis together to form a single logical router that supports up to 1.5 terabits worth of capacity. AT&T and Sprint have already been testing pieces of the new technology, which includes a new generation of Cisco software, said some analysts.

"This announcement is not the HFR," says Stephen Kamman, an analyst with CIBC World Markets. "It is a totally separate project. We know that the next-generation box is out there. But it's really a question of when Cisco and its customers will be ready to announce it."

The company also announced new software upgrades that will let carriers reposition their existing 12400 series routers and other 12000 series routers toward the edge of the carrier network.

With the HFR waiting in the wings, the new product looks to be a stopgap used to prevent customers from upgrading their networks with higher capacity products from competitors such as Avici and Juniper. Like the HFR, these solutions from Avici Systems and Juniper Networks can scale even through clustering.

"We don't want to give customers the opportunity to move to another competitor's offering," said Mike Volpi, general manager of Cisco's Routing Technology Group. "Service providers are pinching pennies right now, and we want to give them a way to upgrade their capacity without having to do a forklift upgrade."

The plan makes sense, given that Cisco has shipped more than 24,000 GSR 12000 boxes since 1997, according to Volpi. He said the company is remaining true to its effort to protect customers' investments by providing upgrades that allow them to use pieces of existing products.

Even though Cisco may have the HFR nearly ready for commercial use, the reality is that most carriers do not need as much capacity as these clustered solutions provide. Although it's true that IP traffic is growing on a yearly basis--maybe even doubling--most carriers do not yet need a product that handles terabits worth of capacity.

So far, Avici is the only vendor that is working on a multichassis implementation. The company announced in the second quarter of this year that AT&T had hooked two of its TSR routers together. Juniper, which announced its next generation routing system 18 months ago, still has not formally introduced the TX matrix, a separate device needed to link the T640s together.

Matt Kolon, senior product marketing manager for Juniper, says the product will be in customer trials in the first half of 2004.

"The TX is working now," Kolon said. "But we haven't had any customers who need it just yet, so we've been focusing on other things."