Besides breaking IOS software away from hardware, users should expect IOS code to run in a more modularized way.
"We've always built lots of services, integrated them into IOS, but they're not isolated from one another," Metzler said. "If one of them crashes, you have a problem with everything running there. Using virtualization techniques, you can isolate the services, so that if one of them has a problem, it doesn't impact the other ones."
Loading services onto routers this way will also allow for more centralized deployment and management. Some operational costs could be reduced or eliminated.
Features and services in IOS -- such as security, VOIP or management -- would run as loadable modules on top of an IOS kernel, letting users turn features on and off without bringing down a router. Also, services that run on hardware modules, such as IPS blades or VPN modules for routers and switches, would run as virtualized services across Linux-based processor blades inside a router or switch chassis. This would let users allocate network processing to applications with more control while maximizing network gear's processing power.
"If you look at all the appliances or special-purpose blades [customers] may buy from us, they're all [probably] humming along at around 20 percent utilization," Metzler said. "If this sounds like standard virtualization techniques [used in data centers] that's because it is; there's nothing new here." He did not rule out the possibility that IOS and some services could be released that run on standard Intel server hardware.
Users should expect to see information on these new changes over the next year or so.
The shift may also force users to upgrade to newer Cisco hardware platforms.
"Some of the hardware we sell today will be capable through a new software load of participating in this," he says. "Some of the hardware we sell today will not."
This kind of shakeup could have positive and negative effects for enterprises, says Karl Rosander, IT manager for the city of Sacramento, California, which has Cisco routers and switches deployed across all city buildings.
"This could be an advantage in how fast I implement new services on routers across our entire network," Rosander says. "From an engineer's perspective, this might cause confusion for engineers out there who have studied" how IOS works and are certified in managing the existing technology structure.
From an overall operations perspective, the ability to dynamically upgrade routers with new security features, for example, would be invaluable, he says.