Silicon photonics "disruptive," Cisco says

Chip technology will enable 400G, Terabit Ethernet

Everyone is talking about how disruptive SDNs will be. Cisco, however, says SDNs are a "limiting vision" and that the broader picture - and impact - will be in network programmability and orchestration.

Those comments came at this week's Cisco Editors Conference is San Jose. Another disruption that Cisco discussed at the conference is the emergence of silicon photonics: integration of optical and electronic components onto a single microchip to boost the speed of chip-to-chip connectivity between router and switch line cards.

A Cisco-funded start-up, Compass EOS, this week unveiled a modular router with silicon photonic chips. Compass EOS officials say the technology achieves order-of-magnitude Internet speed increases by providing terabit-per-second connectivity between line cards.

Cisco agrees with that assessment of the potential impact of silicon photonics.

"Silicon the most interesting thing going on in ASICs today," said Dave Ward, Cisco vice president of engineering, CTO and chief architect. "It's the only disruptive technology that can address longer term technical and commercial requirements."

Silicon photonics enable much greater density of I/O bandwidth into and out of the chip, Ward said, so the chip-to-chip density will be much higher on the line cards Cisco builds for its routers and switches. It also reduces power requirements for connectivity between line cards.

Cisco's recent CoreOptics and Lightwire acquisitions give the company the ingredients its needs to build line cards with silicon photonics for 400Gbps Ethernet interfaces. And once aggregation links hit 400G, Terabit Ethernet won't be far behind, Ward suggested.

Cisco is developing silicon photonic ASICs right now that will enable high-density pluggable interfaces for its routers.

"Those are two critical pieces of innovation we're working on," Ward said, referring to the ASICs and pluggable interfaces.

Some Cisco high-end router customers already have them in their hands, he added.

As for SDNs, Ward echoed Chief Startegy and Technology Officer Padma Warrior's thoughts on SDNs and programmability.

Instead of SDNs themselves being "the next big thing...It's really about what solutions are going to be available via programmatic interfaces and orchestration systems," he says. "And what is missing is an application ecosystem."

Programmability facilitates extremely rapid innovation - the application ecosystem -- to communicate intent or policy across devices, Ward says. And the application development community Cisco's targeting is in customer IT depts.

And Cisco's making a much larger push to using open source to enable that application ecosystem to emerge, Ward said. The "Daylight" SDN controller consortium Cisco is believed to be spearheading appears vital to that.

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