Making the switch: Heralding the processor-powered network

Imagine that instead of a bunch of chassis, or module-based switches, a network could be powered by a series of intelligent processors, tied together by high-speed Ethernet connections.

Sure the idea sounds far-fetched. That is until you consider that Charlie Giancarlo, Cisco Systems’ CTO and president of Cisco’s Linksys division, believes the network is moving down the path to intelligent processor-based switches.

Giancarlo sat down with IT World Canada staff to share his thoughts on the future of networking at Cisco’s Partner Summit, being held this week in Vancouver.

In fact, Giancarlo says, Cisco and several partners, including operating systems outfits, have already begun talking about how to achieve processor-based switching.

Processor-based switches are still probably at least three or four years away from reality, Giancarlo admits. “We’re really at the very front end,” he says.

But they aren’t a pipe dream.

Bandwidth on Ethernet networks has increased so much and latency has been lowered sufficiently to enable Ethernet to behave much like a PCI bus inside a computer acts now, Giancarlo explains. “On the fly you can associate an arbitrary number of processors to a corporate problem.”

If that sounds like the same thing as on-demand, or utility computing, that’s because it is. Switching would just become another application processors would team up to handle, Giancarlo says.

Getting to processor-based switching will require a great deal of coordination between major systems, infrastructure and OS vendors, Giancarlo says. But it will happen, because the major IT vendors’ data centre customers are being swamped by a wave of devices such as blades and disks that will ultimately become unmanageable.

“This is one of those events where deeper collaboration (between the vendors) will be necessary,” he says.

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