Cisco is announcing a 40-core network processor that seems designed to upgrade its CRS-1 core router, though the company isn't saying yet.

Cisco won't actually reveal what it plans to do with the QuantumFlow processor, which the company says it has spent $100 million to develop over the past five years, until March 4. That's when Cisco has scheduled the announcement of a product for enterprises and carriers that it calls a breakthrough innovation to boost network performance for those using interactive applications.

The only stats Cisco is releasing for now about the processor are that it has 40 cores and 800 transistors, leaving industry watchers to speculate on what the technology is all about.

"Network processors are integrated into all manner of network devices," says Mark Lewis, a technology consultant and blogger for Network World's Cisco Subnet community, "including edge and core routers, network security appliances, and switching platforms, but ... it is not yet clear into precisely which network platforms the QuantumFlow Processor will be integrated."

"Wow," says Bob Wheeler, an analyst with The Linley Group, "that's a big, honking processor. It sounds like a core router processor, but without knowing more, I'm not 100 percent sure about that. I doubt it would be for a Catalyst [6500 switch]."

Cisco announced upgrades to its Catalyst line last month as well as a new datacentre switch, the Nexus 7000.

Wheeler says the key number to know is the throughput of QuantumFlow, not the number of cores or transistors. He notes that the current CRS-1 processor, called Silicon Packet Processor, has 188 RISC cores, more than QuantumFlow has. "[QuantumFlow has] got a lot more transistors; I'd assume it's faster," Wheeler says.

"Being that big it seems to be destined as a main CPU in a device or supervisor blade," says Michael Morris, a network architect and a blogger for Cisco Subnet, but he wonders why Cisco bothered to create it. "Intel dual core and IBM technology with quad cores are very advanced and fast. Even the Nexus supervisor uses an Intel Xeon dual core. So, what is the competitive differential by spending $100 million?"

The CRS-1 supports 40Gbits/s per port, and perhaps the new processor could anchor a card that boosts that to 100Gbit/s, Wheeler says.

Cisco says more than 100 engineers worked on QuantumFlow and that it has filed for more than 40 patents on it.

Announcement of the processor without saying what it will be used for seems pretty pointless, Wheeler says. "I'm not sure what they're trying to do except create some buzz for their announcement on March 4," he says.