Late last year, networking giant Cisco turned many heads with the massive announcement of its first foray into chipmaking, appropriately (albeit a tad uninspiringly) dubbed Cisco Silicon One. I wrote at the time that the programmable networking ASIC, the first of its kind, was the most significant announcement from Cisco in the last five years. The offering marked Cisco’s attempt to alleviate what it saw as a serious, looking problem: the current Internet infrastructure’s inability to handle the next generation of digital experiences (VR/AR, 5G, 10G, IoT, 16K streaming, etc.). Cisco Silicon One forms the backbone of the company’s newly declared mission to deliver this “Internet of the Future.” Now Cisco has announced an update and expansion of the original announcement, including various new offerings that leverage the custom ASIC. Let’s take a look at what Cisco announced.
New additions to the family
The first Silicon One chip, announced at the original launch, was the 10.8Tbps Cisco Silicon One Q100. While, historically, five pieces of routing silicon were necessary to build a total system, Q100 changed the game by only requiring one. Now, merely ten months later, come six new 7nm offerings that significantly expand the Silicon One repertoire across the entire networking space. From service provider and web-scale routers to Top of Rack switches, Cisco now covers every base.
The Q200, to start, features a high-performance, large scale, run-to-completion P4 engine and deep buffers. With a speed of 12.8Tbps, Cisco says customers will only require one Q200 to
construct a 32x400GE 1RU router–a process that can require anywhere from two to ten pieces of competitors’ silicon. If one was to string multiple Q200s together with a fully scheduled Ingress Virtual Output Queueing fabric, they could build immense multi-petabit systems. The next two new chips are the Q201 and the Q202, which, according to Cisco, are geared towards less expensive, lower-bandwidth routers (specifically 64x100GE and 32x100GE). In case you weren’t keeping track, that means Cisco Silicon One has chips for the entire router market, from 3.2Tbps up to multi-petabits.
The last three offerings seek to secure Cisco’s place in the web-scale switching device sector. The fastest, with a rate of 12.8Tbps, is the Q200L. Like the Q200, the switching device features high-performance, run-to-completion P4 engines, as well as a fully unified on-die buffer. Another neat thing about the Q200L is that it shares a footprint with the Q200. In other words, customers can leverage it to either support a 32x400GE router with the Q200 or a 32x400GE web-scale switch with the Q200L. Cisco says this compatibility simplifies the development costs for customers.
And while the top-of-the-line switches out there are at the 12.8Tbps rate (at least a little bit longer—25.6Tbps is coming), Cisco believes there is still an appetite for very efficient 3.2Tbps and 6.4Tbps switching devices. These lower-rate, highly efficient switches can fulfill different roles within the network than 12.8Tbps. Sometimes finesse wins out over brute power—you don’t need a sledgehammer to hang a portrait. The new Q201L (6.4Tbps for a 64×100-GE switch) and the Q202L (3.2Tbps for a 32x100GE web-scale switch) seek to address this niche. This is where Cisco Silicon One’s scalability and slice-based architecture shines. The same architecture can scale up or down to form the backbone of all of these devices.
In short, Cisco has accomplished what others have not been able to: it has built a single, unified platform that can break down the historical architectural boundaries separating routing and web-scale switching devices. Furthermore, it appears to have done this without sacrificing quality for the sake of this agnosticism. By combining the efficiency of this groundbreaking silicon with the 7nm process, Cisco is pushing out some unique, promising networking hardware. For that matter, Cisco has already broken the typical one-chip-per-year mold by pushing out six devices in less than a year. Quite a pace for a company that only got into the silicon business ten months ago. I believe Cisco Silicon One will serve the company well and look forward to seeing more devices in the years to come.