10-Gig Processors Shape Up
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