Cisco Turns Routers Into Linux Application Servers

Networking gear and server equipment are two distinct types of hardware, right? Not anymore.

Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) is now opening its Integrated Services Router (ISR) and Cisco Wide Area Application Services (WAAS) platforms to become Linux-based application server platforms. The move could have wide-ranging implications, as Cisco’s gear has millions of deployments that now can be leveraged to serve applications directly.

Inbar Lasser-Raab, Cisco’s senior director of network systems, told that the company has been looking to open up the ISR to third-party applications for a long time.

“We really think that we’re changing the way business models will be built in the branch,” she said. Lasser-Raab isn’t being overly dramatic, either. Cisco to date has sold more than 4 million ISRs and as such has a large installed base to target with the new application initiative.

Officially called the Cisco Application eXtension Platform (AXP), the new initiative includes both hardware and software for deploying applications on Cisco’s routers. The AXP is available as both a module that can plug into modular Cisco ISRs as well as a daughterboard that can plug into a Cisco ISR motherboard.

On the software side, the core operating system of the AXP is Linux. Joel Conover, manager of network systems at Cisco, explained that that the version of Linux used is one that Cisco refers to it as Cisco Hardened Linux.

Cisco is no stranger to Linux, though the AXP does represent a shift.
“This is not the first time we have had a Linux platform, ” Lasser-Raab commented. “Some of the network modules with various services are also Linux-based. So we’re actually using the same Linux to deploy our own services onto modules. Now we’re just making it available to our customers and partners.”

Though the AXP is Linux-based, Conover noted that the actual development environment for applications could be anything an ISV wants. He explained that the SDK (define) and APIs (define) provide a standard set of libraries for C, Python and Java.

Before an application can actually be deployed onto an AXP, a certification process must first be completed. Part of the process includes a license agreement from Cisco as well as a support contract. The certification also provides a mechanism to ensure that only certified applications are deployed on the AXP.

Lasser-Raab noted that routers are mission-critical components, and customers likely don’t want any engineer to be able to deploy whatever they want without first ensuring it’s certified.

From a pure open source perspective, Cisco is also making sure it plays by the rules.

“From a GPL perspective, we’ve taken all the things that are GPL and reciprocated the code back to the community,” Conover said. “Obviously if a developer built an application on top of a GPL platform, that doesn’t imply that they have to GPL that code. “

The GPL is a reciprocal license that requires any modification made be contributed back to the community.

Overall, Cisco expects the AXP to reduce the hardware footprint at branch offices and provide deeper network integration that provides IT managers with more control over what they can monitor.

“The ISR started as a way to integrate services,” Lasser-Raab explained. “This is taking it to whole new level in terms of flexibility.”

The AXP also will take Cisco to a new level competitively, in the sense that it is now encroaching on territory traditionally held by server vendors.

“We really view this as helping customers to simplify their branch architectures,” Lasser-Raab said. “It’s not looking at being a full server replacement; it’s more about efficiency and consolidation.”

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