Cisco Intros Cisco Silicon One: New ASIC Play Beyond The Network Into The Cloud

Cisco Silicon One, a new Cisco-designed ASIC for high-performance networking, is Cisco's first foray into making its silicon available to third-party companies including cloud providers, thereby helping Cisco become a key part of cloud infrastructures.


Cisco Wednesday signaled a major shift in its approach to networking with the introduction of a new networking silicon architecture called Cisco Silicon One, which the company said will bring performance up to 25 terabits per second.

With Cisco Silicon One, Cisco also introduced plans to make the chip available to third-party companies looking to add high-performance networking to their infrastructures, with a couple large service providers already identified as customers.

Cisco also introduced a new high-performance router platform, the Cisco 8000, which is based on Cisco Silicon One and the company's new IOS XR7 networking operating system, and said it is qualifying its networking optics technology for use with Cisco and non-Cisco hosts.

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Cisco's entry into the silicon side of networking comes just a couple of months after Cisco's former Chairman John Chambers, along with Cisco archrival Hewlett Packard Enterprise, teamed to form a startup, Pensando Systems, to develop new silicon and software-defined edge services to transform the 5G edge experience.

Cisco's move to develop its own silicon is more than just a new direction for the company, said Mike Strohl, CEO of Entisys360, a Concord, Calif.-based solution provider and long-time Cisco channel partner.

"If you look at where Cisco is going, this is another sign the company is not going to just sit back and rest on the success of its legacy technology," Strohl told CRN.

Strohl said Cisco Silicon One and Cisco's new IOS XR7 networking operating system gives partners a new reason to visit clients.

"When we sell networking, it's not just the networks," he said. "We’re bringing productivity, backup and disaster recovery, networking quality, a lot of things all going on at the same time as customers continue to increase their data footprints. This will give us a great new way to go and talk with clients."

Ned Engelke, chief technology officer at Evotek, a San Diego-based solution provider and Cisco channel partner, said the pace of innovation in hardware has been slowing for a while, and that the value in IT now almost always comes from the software, which is why programmable silicon in networking is so important.

Engelke told CRN that clients are less and less likely to ask for hardware and software to be bundled together, even when it’s from the same vendor.

"Customers don't want to be constrained by either their hardware or their software," he said. "And almost every big vendor is moving in the direction of breaking software from the hardware. This is being driven by customer demand."

For Cisco, the new Cisco Silicon One will be important to helping the company retake the innovation lead from smaller vendors who are already focused on software-defined features that run on any hardware including whitebox hardware, Engelke said.

"With Cisco Silicon One, Cisco owns everything itself, and becomes more competitive," he said. "Cisco gets a lot more visibility into what's happening in innovation."

The Cisco Silicon One move comes as businesses look for new ways to build infrastructure that meet the performance requirements of new applications including virtual and augmented reality, high-speed streaming, artificial intelligence, 5G networking, adaptive and predictive cybersecurity, IoT, and others yet to be developed, Cisco said.

With Cisco Silicon One, the company gets "clean sheet silicon," or silicon that does not reuse any technology from previous generations, said Jonathan Davidson, senior vice president and general manager of service provider business at Cisco.

"Cisco Silicon One was built to be an architecture with all the features you would expect," Davidson told CRN. "But we also wanted to be power-efficient and compact."

Silicon One represents the first time that Cisco has built silicon that is available to third parties, Davidson said, although by far the vast majority of the chips will be sold via the company's new 8000 series router platform.

"We already have partners with Silicon One," he said. "We are working with the leading companies in the world to make sure we are building the right technology."

Davidson, however, declined to identify any third-party companies who are developing products based on Cisco Silicon One. He even declined to describe the kinds of companies who might be interested, saying there are only a handful with the necessary integration capabilities and other skills who could do so and describing them would be too big a hint.

Cisco describes Cisco Silicon One as the first networking chip designed for universal use across service provider and web-scale markets.

The initial version, the Cisco Silicon One Q100, provides routing performance of over 10 terabits per second, and future versions are expected to provide performance of up to 25 terabits per second.

The Q100 and subsequent Cisco Silicon One offerings are slated to replace the multitude of different silicon chips used in networking and even in specific devices, and offer programmability to help cut operation costs and reduce the time it takes to develop new services, the company said.

The first Cisco product to feature the Q100 is the Cisco 8000 series routers, which are optimized to support at least 10.8 Terabits per second of performance while providing cybersecurity and integrated trust technology for real-time insights into critical networking infrastructures. The Cisco 8000 series routers also take advantage of Cisco's new cloud-enhanced Cisco IOS XR7 operating system.

The Cisco 8000 series routers do not replace any existing router series, and Cisco will continue supporting its existing router families with new line card and software as needed, Davidson said.

Cisco has not announced what other router platforms will include Cisco Silicon One, Davidson said. He also declined to say whether the architecture would be available for non-router products.

Along with Cisco Silicon One, the company also released its new IOS XR7 networking operating system. IOS XR7 works with 12 different NPU, or networking processor families, and not just Cisco Silicon One, Davidson said. It is available for updating existing Cisco routers still under maintenance contracts, he said.

Compared to previous versions of the operating system, IOS XR7 has been significantly simplified by removing some of the software and eliminating several features no long needed, Davidson said.

It is also Cisco's first cloud-enabled networking operating system, which he said means it allows more rapid deployment by moving configurations to cloud environments to test to decrease the amount of time needed to deploy.

IOS XR7 also has an emphasis on assuring users via a cloud-based service that their hardware and software is trusted, he said.

Cisco on Wednesday said it also plans to offer flexible consumption models with its Cisco Optics networking portfolio in a program that will be expanded to include Cisco IOS RX7 and Cisco Silicon One.

While Davidson said he expects the bulk of the Cisco Silicon One business to go through Cisco hardware like the 8000 series routers, there is good potential for the vendor to actually see a significant impact from bringing the chips to market via third-party cloud companies, one observer noted.

Cisco, which has been operating in a cloud world where it was not necessarily monetizing everyone in the cloud, now has that opportunity, said Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, an Austin, Tex.-based analyst firm.

"Now, instead of zero revenue, I can see Cisco selling its chips to the cloud companies, and maybe putting a dent in Broadcom," Moorhead told CRN.

Cisco Silicon One is Cisco's first foray into merchant silicon, or chips it can sell to others, Moorhead said. Cisco, for now, either develops chips for its own equipment or purchases chips from other vendors, he said.

"This is Cisco's first opportunity to sell its chips to other companies," he said. "It would be a bold move. It could see high revenue selling its chips."

While Cisco declined to discuss what companies might be interested in purchasing its Cisco Silicon One, Moorhead said it is pretty easy to guess who is in line for them by looking at who showed up when Cisco introduced the chips in San Francisco.

Moorhead said one can look to the Open Compute Project for a guide. "Facebook, Microsoft, and Google are all doing whitebox hardware," he said. "It wasn't explicit that they will buy the Cisco chips. But Facebook and Microsoft Azure likely wouldn't have been on the stage if they are not buying Cisco Silicon One, or very close to doing that."