Network processors strain to reach full speed

Like many technologies introduced during the bubble years, network processors (NPUs) are perfect for applications that haven’t materialized as quickly as originally envisioned. As a result, the number of NPU suppliers has shrunk significantly over the past two years. However, the vendors that remain report business is finally picking up, thanks in large part to the advent of data-aware transport equipment.

NPUs are programmable devices that can perform a variety of packet-processing functions, including classification, modification, queuing, management, and control. They aim to combine the flexibility of FPGAs with the manufacturing economics of ASICs, thus offering an alternative to both approaches.

When the devices first appeared on the market, target applications included core and edge routers as well as enterprise boxes. Yet NPUs have struggled to penetrate any of these spaces in the expected volumes due to a combination of the market downturn and engineering design trends. The latter represents the primary hurdle in the core-router market, says Bob Wheeler of the Linley Group (Mountain View, CA), a market research and analysis firm that has followed the technology closely. That is particularly true for high-end NPUs that operate at 10 Gbits/sec. “There is a market for 10-gig ports, but a huge piece of that market is concentrated at Cisco and Juniper. And Cisco and Juniper thus far have stuck with internal ASIC solutions,” Wheeler explains.

The fact that Cisco Systems’ new CRS-1 core router includes an internally developed 40-Gbit/sec ASIC processor indicates that the major players won’t base their high-end designs on NPUs any time soon. “I think there’s only one good example at the moment that I could point to as kind of a tier one vendor where they’re actually using standard silicon,” says Wheeler, who declines to reveal that vendor’s identity.

There is some action at lower speeds, however. “From the standpoint of high-end carrier equipment, I’d say it’s the edge router and the multiservice switch where we see the OC-48 class network processors being deployed,” Wheeler reports. “And those could either be for packet over SONET or ATM or even Ethernet links, depending upon the application.”

OC-48 and below appear to present a sweet spot for design wins, and NPU vendors have moved in that direction. EZchip (San Jose, CA), which initially focused on 10-Gbit/sec applications, introduced its duplex 5-Gbit/sec NP-2/5 in August. The device includes an integrated traffic manager. (The company also unveiled the NP-2/10L, another 10-Gbit/sec device.) AMCC (San Diego), the company Wheeler says leads in overall NPU market share, began sampling its 5-Gbit/sec nP3700 with integrated traffic manager this summer.

Amit Banerjee, director of strategic marketing for AMCC, agrees with Wheeler that the router market presents only limited opportunities. AMCC has attacked the transport space by combining its NPUs with its framer/mapper offerings. That has been particularly true for multiservice switching platforms (MSSPs) to enable Ethernet functionality as well as resilient-packet-ring (RPR) support. Banerjee reports similar successes with DSLAMs and wireless backhaul platforms.

AMCC further solidified its chip package strategy with the Mission chipset. Mission combines the nP3700 with the Evros SONET/SDH mapper and Tigris data termination device for cell- and frame-based services. With the accompanying software, AMCC has optimized the chipset to perform Layer 2 and higher functions. The offering enables easier creation of multiservice line cards, Banerjee says. Transport vendors represent a good market for NPUs because, unlike router developers, they haven’t traditionally relied on ASIC development to maintain product differentiation, he adds.

Other vendors have seen the benefits of pairing NPUs with other devices. Xelerated (Corcord, MA) has partnered with Infineon (Munich, Germany) to offer its X10q NPU with Infineon’s framers and mappers for SONET/SDH and RPR. The partnership targets data-aware transport systems such as MSSPs and multiservice provisioning platforms (MSPPs), says Thomas Eklund, vice president of business development, EMEA sales, and a company founder. Eklund sees an opportunity to offer devices for companies designing data-aware service cards for existing transport platforms as well as designing data-centric systems. While Eklund did not want to provide details of design wins, Wheeler believes the Xelerated/Infineon pairing has at least one customer in the transport space that he describes as a “regional tier one.”

Given the fact that one company tops out at 5-Gbit/sec devices and the other at 40-Gbit/sec, it’s not surprising to discover that Banerjee and Eklund disagree when it comes to current data-rate demands. “In the transport market, we see that having the ability, together with Infineon, to offer from OC-48 up to 40-gig solutions has been important for platform decisions,” Eklund asserts. “Because when [customers] move to a vendor, it is important that they can reuse a lot of the software for different line cards.”

Banerjee says that a look at what systems are actually doing today tells a different story. “Are they really filled?” he asks in discussing the bandwidth of the average Ethernet port. “How much processing do you really need? Do you need just some smart intelligent MAC, for example, where you have some packet discards built-in, some traffic management built-in, some way of policing back or throttling back to the end client built-in? So, in other words, though they’re Ethernet, they’re kind of equivalent to a channelized application. The entire processing might be just 2.5-gig or less-though the card is 10-gig. The same with RPR.”

That said, Banerjee reveals that AMCC has 10-Gbit/sec developments on its roadmap; it introduced the nP7510 in 2001, but that device will handle 10 Gbits/sec in only one direction. Meanwhile, Eklund says, “We see a clear interest in these lower-speed rates. And I wouldn’t be surprised in the future if that might lead to a different product of ours.”

The two competitors agree that the market has picked up, however. “The reliance on ASICs is definitely changing significantly. There are very, very few ASICs currently in development,” Banerjee says. “Those that are, those are probably for the bleeding edge, because these companies need to establish or continue to show their lead in some cases. Like maybe a 40-gig network processor.”

“We have seen here two or three years where the market has been very slow and projects have been postponed and postponed and postponed,” Eklund adds. “But the market has definitely picked up during the late spring and summertime, and during the fall here we see a lot of decisions in the three key segments we work in: the data-aware transport, switches and routers, and enterprise domain.”

Wheeler says market improvements should slow the vendor attrition that has marked the space for the last several years. Thus, potential customers should enjoy stable sources of supply. “We see a pretty good growth rate,” he concludes. “So we think that now what we have is a more sustainable situation for the remaining few vendors, and the vendors that stuck it out are going to start to see a benefit. In fact, at this point, it appears that there has been an under-investment in 10-gig and 40-gig silicon, and that as the need starts to emerge, vendors are going to be scrambling to figure out how to meet their customer needs.”

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