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Cisco forges component road map

Posted: 04 Feb 2003 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:cisco system? microprocessor? memory? aisc? processor?

Looking to bring cohesion to its distributed operations, engineering, and supply-chain, executives at Cisco Systems Inc. hope to hammer out a set of three-year road maps by summer for the microprocessors, memories, ASICs, and other technologies they intend to use. The road maps will offer guidelines both for designing Cisco products and forging vendor relationships.

The effort, undertaken in December, could take three years to trickle out into Cisco's shipping products. Senior managers involved in the process called it a strategic move to simplify and centralize design and procurement at the sprawling $18.9 billion communications giant, built up from as many as 73 acquisitions during its boom years in the 1990s.

If successful, the work could bring a new level of design discipline to the highly distributed company. It could also help Cisco more effectively wield its already substantial technology clout in the industry.

The work will kick off in a small way this coming week as Cisco publishes a basic set of design guidelines for its engineers and as it starts informing key vendors whether they have been selected as preferred suppliers. The latter is the culmination of a recent, rigorous vendor analysis.

"Simplification is a key watchword around [here] these days. The number of players, processors and different architectures just adds complexity and cost to running the business," said Richard Ellis, a director of supplier management at Cisco and a member of the team spearheading the effort.

"Cisco historically had a large number of business units, each making their own decisions on component requirements. Trying to focus this on fewer [decisions] and aggregating our requirements should be helpful to the industry," said Andreas Bechtolsheim, general manager of Cisco's gigabit systems business and one of three top Cisco engineers sitting on the new road map working group with Ellis.

Cisco currently uses MIPS and PowerPC processors for so-called control plane operations; X86 processors to run Apache and Linux apps; and a variety of network processors from American Micro Circuits, Broadcom, Intel, and others for data plane operations.

Rajeev Bang, a supply-chain manager responsible for microprocessors at Cisco, said the current effort could result in the company standardizing around one control plane CPU and a smaller number of network processors. The company is also considering using MIPS instead of X86 processors for Apache and Linux apps.

Bechtolsheim does not think the effort will force Cisco engineers to winnow out any of the major microprocessor architectures the company uses today - a list that includes MIPS, PowerPC, and ARM chips. But he did say the road maps will present technology choices that will be enforced in future designs.

"[Engineers] will have no choice [but to follow the road maps]. It will not hamper their creativity, but it will help with our supply chain management a lot," he said.

In fact, engineers will be able to create designs with technologies not on the road maps, Ellis said. But they will have to go through a review process, conducted by senior engineers and supply managers, to get their exceptions approved.

Give and take

The road maps and reviews will help Cisco's supply chain managers take a more direct role in influencing design. "Supply management has been a friend in serving engineering [at Cisco], but to date we have not been influencing them," said Ellis. "Now we want to influence internal designs - and influence suppliers to design [components] to meet our needs. It is a give-and-take thing."

While many engineers think they can adequately address any issues with their vendors, supply managers can wield more clout, Ellis said. "I leverage a big pile of cash with my portfolio purchasing. If vendors see a dollar sign attached to a request, they are more influenced by it."

The move comes as Cisco is grappling with the excesses of the boom years. Business publications routinely praised the company at the time for its speed in identifying and acquiring new startups and then letting them operate as autonomous business units. But from a design perspective, those years left Cisco with overlapping products, holes in product lines, scant technology sharing among systems and a multiplicity of implementation approaches for standard technologies.

The problems have come home to roost during the downturn, with cost, not revenue growth, having become the dominant management concern. Indeed, top management has been trying to get a handle on the design sprawl at Cisco for some time, with mixed results.

Cisco's chief development officer, Mario Mazzola, said he would like to consolidate the company's six major router architectures to three or four.

"In all honesty, after one year or so, we have accomplished some good results but, for many reasons, not as much as I felt at the beginning I would like. Given customer commitments, the reduction in platforms has been very limited," said Mazzola.

Cisco faces complexity at software, silicon and systems levels. A senior router engineer, who asked not to be named, said Cisco's core IOS router software consists of about 12 million lines of code and goes through revisions as often as twice a year.

"At any given time we probably have at least a dozen releases to keep up with," the engineer said.

Cisco has ported IOS to ARM, MIPS, PowerPC, and Sparc processors. Its router line cards use three operating modes to support systems that may use a bus, a central switch or a distributed switch architecture. The products support 10 to 15 different forwarding protocols as well as multiple implementations of standards like ATM.

"We have a lot of generations of products out there," he said.

In memory components, "Cisco uses everything from 4-bit asynchronous memories to 512Mb DDR DRAMs," Ellis said. "The spectrum spans 10-plus years of memory technology. It is all being consumed [by Cisco] today, and we have to support that."

To be fair, Cisco has made headway on some fronts. Analysts praise the way the company melded its Ethernet and routing cards with the optical systems from its purchase of Cerent Corp.

Still, they said the company's complexity and sprawling technology portfolio represents its biggest challenge.

"They have done a lot, but there is a lot left to do," said Michael Howard, principal analyst and co-founder of Infonetics Research Inc. "You can still look down two or three product lines and see the overlap."

In terms of vendors, Cisco is cutting its supplier base from a whopping 1,350 companies in 2000 to about 600 companies by the end of its fiscal 2003. Raising the stakes, it plans to spend as much as 85 percent of its dollars with a short list of preferred suppliers by end of 2003, up from 45 percent in 2000.

Discipline and detail

Ellis said he thinks the outlook is "very good" for bringing Cisco's engineers and vendors within about 80 percent of compliance with its road map. In addition to memories, microprocessors and ASICs, the road map will address power conversion products, optical components and interconnect products, such as passive backplanes and cables.

The road map will go into a fair amount of detail. For instance, in memory it will define bus structures, I/O types, memory organization, and other parameters. "It is ambitious, but it is absolutely necessary going forward. We have moved into an era that requires more discipline," Ellis said.

Ellis helped to execute a similar move, focused primarily on memory technology, at Sun Microsystems in the late 1990s. "We started implementing this back at Sun in 1996 and had products based on that work shipping in 1999. It is a three-year impact. Andy [Bechtolsheim, a Sun co-founder] was one of the first players in that effort. It worked in a past life, and I am confident that it will work here too."

Today, Sun systems employ four standard low-end and four custom high-end memory modules, representing 75 part numbers. "We probably have 10 times that many part numbers in memory here at Cisco today," Ellis said.

- Rick Merritt

EE Times

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