Comms chips

10-Gig Processors Shape Up

After missed deadlines galore, two vendors of single-chip 10-Gbit/s network processors said yesterday that their chips are finally being manufactured.

EZchip Technologies said it had "tapeout" for its NP-1 network processor last week, meaning that it has finalized the design, put it on file, and delivered it to a foundry -- in this case, IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) (see EZchip to Sample 10-Gig Chip).

"Until tapeout you don't know exactly when everything will arrive; after tapeout the time to production becomes very predictable," says EZchip's CEO Eli Fruchter. EZchip expects to have samples in the hands of eight customers in early March.

"This is a very important milestone for the company," he adds. The second one -- and this is not to be sniffed at -- is waiting for the chips and seeing that they actually work. Fruchter is confident, however, that if faults are found, it should be possible to correct them in software, rather than reworking the entire chip.

The other vendor, Fast-Chip Inc., has gone one better, claiming it already has chips back from its foundry, United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC) (NYSE: UMC), and has evaluated them (see Fast-Chip, UMC Unveil OC192 Processor).

"We kept it in the lab for one-and-a-half months and made sure it was passing packets," says Charlie Jenkins, Fast-Chip's VP of marketing and business development. Three customers are already evaluating the silicon, he adds.

From both startups' point of view, this is significant news because it means they can start to see some revenues. "Our customers have placed orders for tools," says EZchip's Fruchter. "Once we have a firm date for sampling, we are going to invoice them for the tools."

It's also a significant development from an industry viewpoint, because it makes EZchip and Fast-Chip first to market with single-chip 10-Gbit/s network processors. Other vendors, such as Agere Systems (NYSE: AGR) and Silicon Access Networks Inc., are offering chipsets that are capable of processing packet data at these line rates, but their solutions are less integrated, requiring at least three times as many chips to do the same work, according to Fruchter.

According to Fast-Chip's Jenkins, PolicyEdge, as his company's device is called, is one of the few true single-chip solutions. Other vendors claiming to have single-chip network processors have conveniently forgotten that they require supporting chips such as memory chips, he says. And that leads to increased board space, power consumption, and cost -- the three main concerns of systems integrators.

Fast-Chip solves this problem by putting a certain amount of memory on-board. The company calls it "Boundary Addressable Memory" (BAM), which Jenkins says is a kind of "superCAM" (content addressable memory). Not only does this eliminate the external chips, it also reduces the size of the databases used for classification lookups. Smaller databases equate to much faster lookup times, he says.

The result is a chip taking up just 2.5 inches of board space (in an 840-pin package), consuming 5 watts of power, and costing around $450 (in quantities of 5,000). According to Jenkins, typical metrics for comparable chips -- the ones that require external memory -- are 10 to 20 inches of board space, 30W, and a cost approaching $1,000 once the memory chips have been added into the equation.

He points out that some applications -- for example, those requiring more complex statistical functions -- can use external memory. Fast-Chip also plans to introduce a coprocessor later this year that increases the number of database entries from 16,000 to 4 million.

Not to be outdone, EZchip's network processor also operates with no supporting chips. It has on-board SDRAM to handle the classification and wide pipelines to transfer data in and out of memory quickly. The chip weighs in at around 4 square inches (in a 1,247-pin CCGA package) and consumes 15W. The company didn't give a price.

But when doing a proper chip count, it's necessary to take into account the fact that both EZchip and Fast-Chip require external traffic managers to take care of queuing and scheduling. While this is true of most network processor vendors, there are one or two, such as Cognigine Corp., that intend to include traffic management on-board the network processor (see Startup Spins Novel Network Processor). EZchip is planning to introduce its own traffic manager later this quarter, while Fast-Chip expects customers to use standalone traffic managers from other vendors or build their own (see EZchip Redoes It ).

Both companies are initially manufacturing their first chips in a 0.18 micron CMOS process. EZchip plans to move to 0.11 micron later on, and Fast-Chip will upgrade to 0.13, which will provide a boost to the clock speed on the chip, thus improving the number of packet operations per second.

The pair see the main competition as Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC) (Nasdaq: AMCC), which intends to ship samples by the end of this month, and Agere, which expects samples by the end of the current quarter.

— Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading
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The_Holy_Grail 12/4/2012 | 11:05:55 PM
re: 10-Gig Processors Shape Up Very encouraging to see 10 gig ASIC coming online. However, how does this compete with the system houses doing their own custom ASICs?
mrcasual 12/4/2012 | 11:05:55 PM
re: 10-Gig Processors Shape Up Very encouraging to see 10 gig ASIC coming online. However, how does
this compete with the system houses doing their own custom ASICs?

Most of the big system houses will have seen all the details of the various network processors from both the startups and the established companies. Based on what they have seen in terms of features and schedule they will have made build/buy decisions, usually with some contingency plans for the more risky buy decisions. The arrival (or near arrival in EZ-chips case) means that it's time to fish or cut bait for the system designers.

Once the chips actually arrive and can be shown to be working the analysis of the build/buy decision changes quite dramatically and it becomes pretty much a feature fight between the in house designs and the external chips.
hitecheer 12/4/2012 | 11:05:54 PM
re: 10-Gig Processors Shape Up Has anyone heard anything about Internet Machines? They are in the same space, I believe.

The fight in this space is going to be brutal. Among at least 2 dozens of NP companies, only 3-4 companies max will be able to survive.

How is Silicon Access doing after their November layoff? Anyone?
pablo 12/4/2012 | 11:05:52 PM
re: 10-Gig Processors Shape Up ...it can still take a very significant time to get the actual chips after tape-out to the ASIC foundry. These devices are still some time away from going into real volume production. It is encouraging to see 10G NPUs getting there, though. This being 2002, the interesting question will be whether the 10G NPU market generates enough revenue and profit for a company to live off it, and eventually go public. It would seem the market needs to pick up as a prerequisite for success.
edgecore 12/4/2012 | 11:05:52 PM
re: 10-Gig Processors Shape Up
I assume that EZ chip and Fast Chip have a dev environment! With today's time to market pressures (which happens to be the #1 value of using an NPU vs ASICs, from a hardware design perspective). But with the complexities of writing sw (both C and microcode), and optimizing your sw to run as fast as possible on NPU's, I am surprised that the sw dev environment doesn't get more attention.

docsisdude 12/4/2012 | 11:05:51 PM
re: 10-Gig Processors Shape Up didnt fastchip just have a major layoff in November/December? Thanks for designing the chip, don't let the door hit you in the ***
Pauline Rigby 12/4/2012 | 11:05:47 PM
re: 10-Gig Processors Shape Up Calling system vendors...

I've decided to start putting together a report on network processors, and I'd like to get some feedback from systems integrators.

What features do you look for in a network processor, and what sort of things might swing the decision to purchase an ASSP rather than use or develop your own ASICs.

I'm also interested in the question of how you compare the performance of one network processor to another.

Please contact me at [email protected] to contribute to this report.

skeptic 12/4/2012 | 11:05:46 PM
re: 10-Gig Processors Shape Up What features do you look for in a network processor, and what sort of things might swing the decision to purchase an ASSP rather than use or develop your own ASICs.


1 - Line rate at all packet sizes
2 - Power and total footprint (as it relates to
density). (total footprint includes the entire
set of chips if more than a one-chip solution).
3 - Ease of use. i.e. does it have a strange
programming model that will require a team of
PHDs to figure out.
4 - features
5 - cost per unit
6 - capacity (how many routes/labels/etc)
7 - stability as a vendor
8 - ability/wilingness to deliver parts
9 - If the part is not finished, their schedules
to deliver a customer-quality version of the
part. (not rev-0 parts fresh from the fab).
10 - The nature of the product the part is to
go into. If I'm building something with huge
volumes, there may be a large cost advantage
in doing custom asics (but the volume has to be
really large).

If there is a competitive part available in a
finished state, the only people likely to do
custom chips are:

1) people who already have them
2) people whose profits can be heavly influenced
by shaving a few pennies off the cost of a

amif2000 12/4/2012 | 11:05:36 PM
re: 10-Gig Processors Shape Up It's nice to see that 10Gig products (finally) go into production.

The two products described in the article are not the same beast. The Fastchip PolicyEdge (as the name implies) is mostly a classifier and only tags the packets. It still requires another processor up ahead to modify the packets. The EZChip NP-1 does it all (although rumored not to do it at full 10Gig).
EdgeRelief 12/4/2012 | 10:57:50 PM
re: 10-Gig Processors Shape Up I saw the PolicyEdge processor running at 10 gigabits in the Fast-Chip booth at NGN in October, and it was doing all the MPLS LSR tag lookups and editing (push, pop, and merge) without any other NPE in the fast path.
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