Cisco's New Router Shows Need for New Processors

mk-as893_cisco__d_20081110200544Cisco today announced a new edge router capable of moving 6.4 terabytes of data — the equivalent of 200 full length movies — per second. Om anticipated the product last week, pointing out that the influx of data traveling over the Web requires better and faster equipment to manage such complexity and traffic growth. What we also need is a different type of chip.

Routers have to process a lot of data really quickly. They are the air traffic controllers of the Internet: Each time someone types in a URL, the router has to figure out how to get the request to the correct end point. Since the number of possible routes grows every year, as does the number of times a router is consulted, old processors just can’t cut it anymore, especially at the edge where this Cisco router will sit. Instead of making chips for such devices more powerful (and more power-hungry), engineers are following in the footsteps of the server world and adding more cores.

Multicore chips are gaining in use in the embedded world for networking gear, set-top boxes and other applications. In recent routers Cisco had turned to Tensilica, a maker of specialized embedded multicore chips that can take tasks such as routing and video encoding and speed them up without requiring a lot of power. Tensilica calls its products data plane processors or DPUs. Cisco used those DPUs on its QuantumFlow processor.

Cisco is still using the QuantumFlow processor, but has its own custom-designed cores replacing the Tensilica core, inside this latest router, according to sources. However, Intel uses Tensilica cores for audio processing in its new line of systems on a chip built for video players). Other chipmakers, such as Freescale, which in June announced a new family of processors called QorIQ (say “Core IQ”), are tackling the problem of dealing with real-time data in low-power environments with more flexible, multicore embedded processors.

As real-time data processing becomes more important in areas such as reading routing tables and video and audio processing, Tensilica’s DPU cores and Freescale’s chips offer a way to process that information using less power than a general purpose CPU or even a graphics processor that might also be used for the task. Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab are even using the Tensilica cores to try to build an energy-efficient supercomputer. In a connected world where devices have to do more but consume less, this type of design may be the way to go.

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