Cisco embedded OS gets brain surgery

The brain behind Cisco Systems Inc.’s hardware is getting a lobotomy. Development teams at Cisco are sticking the proverbial icepick in its Internetwork Operating System (IOS) and carving it up into modules, which one industry insider says will increase performance of hardware such as routers and save users money.

While Cisco is remaining tight-lipped about the improvements to IOS, Joe Fusco, director of IP services at Infonet Services Corp., an Internet service provider (ISP) in El Segundo, Calif., has seen several new portions of the new modular IOS directly from Cisco and has been briefed on improvements but has yet to see the new IOS in its entirety.

Infonet uses Cisco equipment for its IP network, gear from Nortel Networks for Frame Relay and Marconi Corp. products for ATM.

“The plan is that Cisco is going to write down the IOS into separate modules that have separate functionality,” Fusco explained. “You get two benefits out of that. One is that you only need to take the pieces of code (the modules) and include the functions that you want to run on particular routers. Second, you have a much smaller footprint in terms of memory requirements for the hardware.”

Less memory requirements means less money spent on memory, meaning costs savings for companies.

The modular IOS is similar to the human brain which is divided up into lobes — the frontal lobe, the parietal lobe, the temporal lobe and the occipital lobe. Evolutionarily speaking, with each new ancestor of homo sapiens came additional brain functionality. Similarly with Cisco’s IOS, as the operating system evolved, more components were tacked on. As a result the Cisco IOS is extremely long and users can’t upgrade their routers to the latest versions of the IOS without uploading an entirely new version of it, Fusco said.

This causes massive headaches because routers have to be taken offline to be upgraded and often, fixing one thing can break something else, he said.

“Inside the IOS operating system there are lots of features, for example, the multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) and the Cisco express forwarding. All this functionality is included in that IOS, some of which you use, some of which you may not use,” Fusco said. “If you want to run a 7500 series router, you get the [IOS] code and everything that’s in it is loaded into that router whether you are going to use it or not.”

The power of modules allows users to pick which functionalities will be loaded into their routers and as a result, reduces the amount of memory needed per router and performs easier upgrades.

Right now, Fusco said if he is going to upgrade a router, he has to take it offline. With the modular system, he could update only the functionality contained in that module leaving the router free to pass along packets.

“I think it’s a significant improvement going forward,” Fusco said. “The customers will see a difference in the speed of upgrading features.”

While there have been reports that Cisco will be releasing the improvements to IOS, Cisco would neither confirm nor deny these reports.

However, the company did say it would be hosting an industry event May 25 to celebrate a major advancement in global communications and networking which would focus around infrastructure requirements, the future for the Internet and next-generation carrier networks.

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