Cisco's huge router reaches five-year milestone

The CRS-1 debuted in 2004 and has proved it's needed even as competition gains on Cisco

Five years ago when Cisco Systems introduced its CRS-1 core router platform some criticized it as overkill, but it has enabled a growth in network traffic that in turn has fueled demand for thousands of the devices.

Cisco introduced the CRS-1 (Carrier Routing System) on May 25, 2004, as its first multichassis core router platform. The numbers were impressive: Fully configured, the system would have 72 racks of network interface modules and eight racks of interconnecting "fabric" modules, all acting as a single router with 92Tb per second (Tbps) of capacity. In the four-year development of the CRS-1, Cisco even created a new version of its IOS (Internetwork Operating System) software, called IOS XR. The new OS shared elements with the traditional IOS, including its venerable command-line interface, but had a modular architecture for high availability.

Five years later, Cisco's predictions of high-definition online video and ever-growing demand for Internet capacity have come true, and big carriers including AT&T, Verizon Wireless, China Telecom, Telstra, Comcast and BT Group all have deployed CRS-1s, according to Cisco. But the rising tide has lifted rival Juniper Networks' core routers even more than Cisco's, and China's Huawei Technologies is making inroads in the lower end of the market, according to one analyst.

The CRS-1 came in the wake of Juniper Networks' T Series routers and TX Matrix interconnection system, another big multichassis platform for the core of carrier networks. It also emerged after several startups, including Caspian Networks and Procket Networks, had tried to jump into the big-money business of supplying the biggest routers on the Internet amid a historic telecommunication crash. Shortly after introducing the CRS-1, Cisco announced it was buying Procket's assets.

At its 2004 launch event in Mountain View, California, Cisco demonstrated the new platform with MCI (now part of Verizon Communications) by sending a high-definition video stream over a 40Gbps link while simulating thousands of other simultaneous traffic streams. But it wasn't until the following year that YouTube made video a force on the Internet, a trend that eventually placed video at the center of Cisco's corporate strategy. The company's video-oriented product line now spans room-sized TelePresence meeting systems to handheld Flip Video cameras and includes set-top boxes from the former Scientific-Atlanta.

Thanks in part to user-generated clips and other video, Internet traffic has grown at a breakneck pace. Sales of the CRS-1 have grown along the way, and Cisco claims it has now shipped more than 3,200 units to about 300 customers. More than 250 of the routers are multichassis configurations, deployed at more than 25 service providers, the company says. It took three years for the platform to generate its first US$1 billion in revenue, but its latest $1 billion came in just a year, he said.

"Now it looks like the right product at the right time," said Suraj Shetty, vice president of worldwide service provider marketing.

Both Internet and video growth are expected to continue soaring. IDC forecasts that just consumer Internet traffic in the U.S. alone will grow from 14,000TB per day this year to more than 36,000TB per day in 2013, and that video will grow to more than 50 percent of total traffic by that time.

The rise of mobile data, with 3G and emerging 4G wireless networks, is also pushing up demand for high-capacity network cores. Verizon Wireless is now the largest customer of the CRS-1, Shetty said. The carrier is getting set to offer 4G LTE (Long-Term Evolution) service commercially next year. On Wednesday, Cisco announced the platform recently was deployed by MegaFon, a Russian 3G operator.

Yet even as the market for such powerful routers has blossomed, Cisco has actually lost ground to rival Juniper in market share, according to analyst Ray Mota of Synergy Research.

In the first quarter of 2004, Cisco had just under 73 percent of the market for core routers, compared with about 25 percent for Juniper and less than 2 percent for Avici, a meshed router maker that has since left the hardware business for software and renamed itself Soapstone. In the first quarter of this year, Cisco had just over 60 percent, next to Juniper's nearly 36 percent and more than 4 percent for Huawei, Mota said.

Cisco has extended its technology to smaller form factors of the CRS-1 for use at smaller service providers or facilities, Mota noted. This is the segment where Huawei is strongest, he said.

Traffic growth isn't the only factor driving the adoption of big routers such as the CRS-1, Mota said. Carriers are also using them to consolidate their routing infrastructure for cost savings and to build high-powered data centers to deliver cloud computing services, he said.

Carriers can now carve out resources for many customers on a single CRS-1, even physically separating them on different modules in the system to help isolate potential problems, Cisco's Shetty said.

The CRS-1 is also ready for the next generation of wide-area networking, Shetty said. Once there is an IEEE standard for 100Gbps Ethernet, the platform will be able to accommodate those interfaces as well as the 40Gbps ports it has now. Unlike earlier routers, designed for useful lifetimes of three to five years in ISPs, the CRS-1 was engineered from the ground up for the lifecycles of traditional carrier gear, lasting at least 10 to 15 years and potentially for decades to come, he said.

"Right now, I think we're just hitting our stride," Shetty said.

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