Why Arista Doesn't Like ASICs
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The best way for networking to catch up with Moore's Law is to abandon Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) design, according to
Andy Bechtolsheim, a founder of Arista Networks Inc.
That opinion isn't surprising, considering Bechtolsheim is betting Arista's success on merchant semiconductors -- i.e., non-ASICs.
Still, Bechtolsheim is a Silicon Valley celebrity, having also helped found Sun Microsystems and a key, early Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) acquisition, Granite Systems, so he was bound to hold his audience captive. In a keynote Thursday at the Linley Tech Processor Conference, put on by The Linley Group , he touched on a wide range of topics related to today's data-center networks, loosely centering the whole talk on Moore's Law.
His main point was that networking hasn't kept up with Moore's Law. That's not necessarily surprising, considering Moore's Law is about transistor density and doesn't promise anything about system performance.
Still, Bechtolsheim said it's annoying how networking has been so far behind Moore's Law -- with speeds taking 12 years to go from 1Gbit/s to 10Gbit/s -- and the way to catch up, he thinks, is to avoid using ASICs in networking.
"I'll just flat-out say ASIC designs will never be on Moore's Law," he said.
The difference is in the way chips are designed. ASICs have an established procedure behind them, a sequence of software tools that build the chip. Specifically, the chip's functions are dreamed up independent of chip layout, Bechtolsheim said.
That means that certain considerations, such as the chip's clock rate, become secondary. The way to overcome that, if clock rate happens to be important to you, is to not use the ASIC design process.
That's why Arista can find more suitable chips for its needs by buying off the shelf from the likes of Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) and Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), he said. Bechtolsheim didn't mention this explicitly, but the message was clearly that these design differences are what, in his view, make Arista's approach superior to the ASICs designed by Cisco, Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR), Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) and others.
"We are actually getting back on Moore's Law here, by a combination of packaging technologies and, let's say, a more competitive industry where people are getting these chips out faster," he said.
Competition among switch-chip vendors does seem to be on the rise, with Intel (through the recent acquisition of Fulcrum Microsystems) and Freescale Semiconductor Inc. apparently taking on Broadcom.
That Intel acquisition is important, because Bechtolsheim also noted that the creation of more complex, "fancy" chips can now cost $20 million, whereas it used to cost just $1 million. "If you can't sell 100,000 chips, it's hardly worth doing," he said. "What this all means is that some of these smaller vendors can't design the chips, because they can't get the volume."
Where 100G went wrong
Moore's Law was the general topic of Bechtolsheim's talk, but really, he wandered through several topics relevant to high-end networking, speaking quickly in his soft German accent.
Regarding high-speed networking, Bechtolsheim said he doesn't see the data center being the driver for speeds of 400Gbit/s and faster. The throughput in a fabric woven of 100Gbit/s connections is massive enough that a jump to something faster doesn't seem necessary yet; rather, it's the long-haul connections that will drive speeds up to 1Tbit/s, he said.
Bechtolsheim added an aside about silicon photonics. His big hope for the technology is that it improves the state of 100Gbit/s optical interfaces; he complained that there are too many types already (citing CXP, ZHD, QSFP2 and the three types of CFP) and that they're too costly, with longer-reach interfaces running at $50,000 per port.
Afterwards, Bechtolsheim graciously hung around to answer questions in the hallway. He seemed to relish the interaction, even when some of the questions struck topics he found trite or unworthy.
OpenFlow was one such topic, as Bechtolsheim considers it overhyped. "We actually support OpenFlow. You can run OpenFlow on our product. It's just that nobody uses it. We did it for one customer," he said.
— Craig Matsumoto, Managing Editor, Light Reading