Everyone hates slow load times, from users to Internet service providers.
But few people can actually do something to keep things from slowing down, and even fewer can say they have helped to speed things up. Two of those who can are the engineers at Cisco Systems who designed the fastest routers on the planet.
“The people who run the Internet — the T1 [1.5-megabit-per-second] ISPs — have such a staggering need for bandwidth. The bandwidth doubles every six months. Thats why the supply has to grow,” says one of the engineers, Gary Epps.
In 1995, he and Michael Laor were assigned as the technical leads on a project to rev up Ciscos 12000 series router, the most common router on the Internet.
Until then, routers worked like computers, processing all signals through a single, central processing unit. That CPU became a bottleneck, preventing high traffic volumes from flowing through at the same speed. The problem was amplified by adding new software services, which were also processed through the CPU. But the Internet demanded ever-faster, more scalable and reliable technology.
“We had to build routers in a whole new direction,” Epps says, describing an approach that used many processing units working in parallel. Instead of using a single processor at each port that accepted new transmissions, they had to build processors at each port to a fiber-optic input line. “The key was to say thats not so crazy,” he says.
The two brought different strengths to the project. “Hes the brain of the team. Im the brawn,” Epps says. Laor was the technology futurist, plotting which technology would survive the longest. Epps was the router expert.
By 1997, Epps and Laor had their first prototypes running signals, which later became their first new 12400 series router, able to handle 40 gigabits per second. Even this has quickly proven inadequate, and Cisco recently released a 160-Gbps router.
“Demand is so high, these guys want to rip it out of our hands and install it in the Internet,” Epps says. “Its good job security. But its scary to think that thats a pretty good days work, but the companies come back saying, I want something faster.”