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Cisco's 'Jawbreaker' seen as response to competitive pressure

Development of data center fabric and Nexus 3000 seen as competitive responses, time-to-market play.

By , Network World
March 10, 2011 11:11 AM ET

Network World - Why would Cisco be developing a new data center fabric product line based on merchant silicon when its Nexus switches and FabricPath software are already available

Observers are still speculating about last week's news that Cisco is developing a new Nexus switch, and perhaps fabric switches, based on Broadcom silicon instead of internally developed ASICs. Cisco won't discuss the unannounced products, so an explanation from the company isn't available.

Some analysts believe Nexus/FabricPath is incomplete, that it doesn't take the data center to a completely flat, one-layer fabric. That's why Cisco needs to develop a new line, which sources say it is doing under the code name "Jawbreaker."

And doing so with merchant silicon reduces the time and cost of developing custom ASICs, and speeds time-to-market - something of vital importance now that Juniper has rolled out its QFabric line from its Stratus fabric project.

"FabricPath reduces complexity, but from three tiers to two," says Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at the Yankee Group. "Stratus goes down to one."

Paving the way for the flat network

Jawbreaker may also be an attempt by Cisco to freeze the market; it's not expected to ship until late 2012 but Juniper's QFabric ships later this year.

Cisco is also expected to soon announce the Nexus 3000, a low-latency, high-density 1-rack-unit 10 Gigabit Ethernet switch specifically designed for market trading. The Nexus 3000 is based on Broadcom's Trident chipset, sources said, while Jawbreaker is based on Broadcom's upcoming Trident+ devices.

Nexus 3000 is not part of the Jawbreaker fabric, the sources said. But Cisco's been losing business to Arista and Juniper in financial trading departments, so the Nexus 3000 is intended to strike back, analysts say.

But basing any product on merchant silicon is a "huge departure" for Cisco, Kerravala says.

"It signals that they are feeling some kind of competitive pressure," Kerravala says. "But ASICs give them a competitive advantage" due to their proprietary technology.

Kerravala believes follow-on versions of Jawbreaker and the Nexus 3000 may be fitted with ASICs instead of off-the-shelf processors. Other analysts believe Cisco's decision to use merchant silicon reflects a confidence in the performance of the devices, and frugality.

"Since every other switching vendor -- including 'performance-oriented' firms like Arista, Force10, and Juniper -- use merchant silicon, Cisco now feels like it is good enough as well," says Jon Oltsik, principal analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. "I think we are also seeing a financial decision here. Cisco needs to lower prices but protect margins. The only way to do this is lower its costs, thus merchant silicon. I actually think this is a wise decision."

As for Jawbreaker in particular, Oltsik believes Nexus/FabricPath is optimized more for Fibre Channel-over-Ethernet (FCoE) penetration than for flattening a data center fabric. Cisco is an aggressive evangelist of FCoE for virtualizing storage, running it as another traffic type over Ethernet.

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