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Enigma Unlocks Packet Switch Fabric

A chip startup is trying to move backplane switching into the realm of variable-sized packets, hoping its technology can make it stand out in an area already populated by startups.

Enigma Semiconductor Inc. debuted this week, launching HybriCore, a switch fabric chipset claiming 280 Gbit/s of switching capacity. The chip is targeted at high-end switches and routers, particularly those with 10-Gbit/s links geared toward newer services such as video-on-demand. (See Enigma Debuts HybriCore.)

The company was founded by Jacob Nielsen and CEO Rob Sturgill, both of whom were part of Vitesse Semiconductor Corp.'s (Nasdaq: VTSS) switch fabric team, back when the company worked on such things. Enigma has raised $12.5 million in two rounds. (See Vitesse's Balancing Act and Enigma Scores $12.5M.)

Switch fabric startups are a rare breed lately, and even during the bubble, they were less plentiful than network processor startups. That was because most systems vendors preferred to use their own switch fabric, since the design of that device has implications on the rest of the system.

Given that, Enigma officials figure their best hope of success is to target the high end and dazzle them with technology. "The backplane components tend to be won by the company with a clear architectural lead," Sturgill says. "You have to have a demonstrable advantage, especially for a startup."

Competition for Enigma includes startups Dune Networks, Sandburst Corp., and TeraChip Inc. On the public-company side, Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC) (Nasdaq: AMCC) continues to sell a switch-fabric line acquired from IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM). (See AMCC Switches On IBM's Fabric.)

Enigma claims its advantage is the abandonment of cell-based switching, a process by which all traffic is divided into equally sized cells. This makes switching more predictable, but the fixed size of cells means that some traffic is wasted. For example, if cells are 64 bytes apiece, and a 65-byte chunk of traffic arrives, the 65th byte would occupy a cell of its own. Switch fabrics use a trick called overspeed to overcome this "cell tax," as some call it.

Enigma claims to have found a way to switch traffic in chunks of varying sizes. IP, of course, comes in packets of varying sizes, so Enigma's promise is to switch traffic in its native size and shape.

"On paper it's definitely a differentiation," says Jag Bolaria, an analyst with The Linley Group. "You might get better throughput for the same-sized die as you could with a cell-based switch."

"This is particularly important for standardized platforms such as AdvancedTCA, where the number of serial links connecting each blade is restricted," says Simon Stanley, an analyst with Light Reading's Comm Chip Insider. "As Ethernet and IP traffic continues to grow, I expect a shift by OEMs to packet-based switch fabrics."

Sturgill says Enigma is prepared to tweak the chip to conform to standards that arise. But the high-speed standards relevant to HybriCore won't be completed by the time Enigma's customers want to start building products. For example, the IEEE 802.3ap Backplane Ethernet Task Force is developing new backplane specifications that show "great promise, just too late for second-quarter 2006 developments," Sturgill says.

As usual for this space, Enigma has some customers lined up but can't disclose them. The company has at least one notable technology ally, as it's licensed technology from Rambus Inc. (Nasdaq: RMBS).

Most of Enigma's 25 employees are in Copenhagen with Nielsen, while Sturgill and a small executive team man a Santa Clara, Calif., office.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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