April 21, 2004 4:00 AM PDT

Cisco plans network software overhaul

Cisco Systems this summer plans to release a major overhaul of its Internetwork operating system, a move that is expected to bring long overdue improvements--and some possible complications--to software that runs most of the world's routers.

The upgrade to the software known as IOS will be demonstrated on a new core router that will be unveiled in June at the Supercomm tradeshow in Chicago, company representatives said Tuesday. That device, code-named Huge Fast Router, or HFR, will be the first router to support single 40 gigabits per second optical interfaces. The total system capacity of the new 16-slot chassis will be at least 640 gigabits per second--double that of any product from Juniper Networks, Cisco's closest competitor in the market for core routers that power network backbones.

Cisco said it will continue to support existing versions of IOS, adding that the new version due this summer is limited to the new HFR platform, at least for now.

But analysts said the upgraded operating system will eventually run a wide variety of Cisco products, promising to simplify network management, bolster security and create new software products for the company.

"IOS has been getting long in the tooth for some time," said Stephen Kamman, an analyst with CIBC. "It's important to see Cisco announcing a new version that could work its way across its entire product line."

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What's new:
Cisco Systems this summer plans to release a major overhaul of its Internetwork operating system, also known as IOS.

Bottom line:
IOS is to networking equipment what Windows is to PCs because almost every company or service provider on the planet that is connected to the Internet uses Cisco products running IOS.

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Cisco's IOS has been the foundation of all of the networking giant's products since its inception. IOS is to networking equipment what Windows is to PCs because almost every company or service provider on the planet that is connected to the Internet uses Cisco products running IOS. As new products and features have been introduced over the years, the software has evolved into a patchwork of code.

"Everybody in the service provider industry has been waiting for this new version of IOS," said Joseph Fusco, director of IP services at Infonet Services, a global carrier that provides Internet Protocol services to corporate customers in 57 countries. "The Cisco code has really grown over the years, and it's gotten pretty big, which makes upgrades much more difficult."

Cisco's bulky code has often made the software buggy and contributed to certain security flaws. Last summer, a bug was discovered that allowed hackers to use a special sequence of packets to crash routers. In March, nine separate vulnerabilities were discovered that made Cisco routers and switches more susceptible to distributed denial-of-service attacks. These attacks occur when hackers take control of servers and flood the network with millions of packets, which eventually cripple devices.

The upgraded software is designed to help alleviate such issues by making it easier for Cisco customers to tinker with its products. It could also allow Cisco to break apart IOS into a basic software product with various premium add-ons, decreasing prices for low-end products while creating new, costlier high-end software lines.

The new software uses a so-called modular architecture that runs different routing and switching functions on separate software processes. Because of this design, Cisco developers can add new features and upgrade portions of the code without worrying about causing problems in other parts of the code. As a result, customers may have far fewer bugs to deal with when adding new features to their routers.

The design of the software also means that network administrators don't have to take a router or switch out of service when they do routine upgrades or install bug patches. The current version of IOS, which runs on a single software process, requires that the box be taken out of service to be updated.

"There is far less potential for damaging the structure of the entire code base if you add new features separately," said David Newman, president of Network Test, an independent testing house. "One tiny change to the code can screw up the whole works."

Modular software catching on
Cisco's changes come as networking companies are increasingly adopting modular software. While the idea has been around for some time, it has only recently started to gain appeal on a broader scale. Juniper was one of the first companies to take a crack at compartmentalizing its software. The company doesn't sell pieces of software separately, but it asserts that some aspects of the code can be upgraded separately.

Other companies, such as Avici Systems, Extreme Networks, Redback Networks and Laurel Networks have modularized even more functionality. And a new open-source routing platform developed at the University of California at Berkeley is also taking a modular approach.

Sprint is among the first service providers that is beta testing the HFR and the upgraded software, company sources said.

But not every customer is excited about the idea of new software. Cory Martin, director of information technology for the Douglas County school system in Georgia, has built a network using mostly Cisco switches and routers. He said that if the network is built in a redundant configuration, meaning that there are two routers or switches at every critical point in the network, then upgrades are not a problem. One router can be taken out of service and upgraded while the other one is still forwarding traffic, he said.

"I'm used to the process of the upgrades," he said. "My people are already trained to handle the upgrades, and it works well for us."

Newman said that sentiments such as these could pose a problem for Cisco as it tries to push the new software onto existing customers already familiar with the current version of IOS.

"Mike O'Dell (former chief scientist at Internet backbone provider UUNet) used to say that 'nobody changes basic technology for anything less than 10 times improvement,'" Newman said, quoting the networking guru. "I think that's the challenge for Cisco. Unless customers can really see a big upside, they'll just continue using what they've already got installed in their networks."

Details of the upgraded software and the HFR, which will run it, were first reported by Network World on Monday.

Industry experts have speculated for years about the development of an improved operating system and the HFR. Although Cisco representatives confirmed the new IOS and core router, they declined to elaborate on details of either product.

"We will continue to evolve Cisco IOS software as a vehicle for Cisco innovation, increased consistency, unification, and delivery of key IP-based applications," a Cisco representative said in a statement e-mailed to CNET News.com. "Cisco IOS Software supports modular architectures, and that enables Cisco to offer tailored versions of IOS optimized for different markets, products, and applications."

 

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