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Intel Backs Another Switch Chip

Sandburst reveals details of its switch fabric architecture, with Intel's blessing

June 27, 2002

3 Min Read
Intel Backs Another Switch Chip

Does the world need another switch fabric startup? Sandburst Corp. thinks so. And so, apparently, does Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), which is backing Sandburst as both an investor and a sales partner.

Sandburst took the podium today at the Network Processors East conference in Framingham, Mass., to formally introduce its HiBeam switch fabric and chipset (see Sandburst Switches Packets).

So is it just another switch fabric startup? Naturally, Sandburst says not. It's planning to offer a complete solution for OC192 (10-Gbit/s) packet processing systems, not just the switch fabric, says Vince Graziani, the acting CEO. Sandburst will shortly tape out (send to the foundry for fabrication) all of the chips in its chipset, which perform packet forwarding and traffic management in addition to switching.

Yet, by partnering with Intel, Sandburst seems to be acknowledging that it won't have the complete package for every application. It has already announced that its switch fabric interoperates fully with Intel's IXP2800 and IXP2400 network processors (see Intel: The Prince of Processors?).

Here's the skinny. Sandburst's chipset comprises four different chips in total. One of these, called the forwarding engine (FE), is a layer 2-4 packet forwarding chip. The other three are a chipset that does both traffic management and switching up to 640 Gbit/s of total capacity. The chipset includes a queuing engine on the line card and a centralized scheduler and crossbar on the switch card.

In effect, Sandburst has integrated traffic management and switching, which makes its solution a little different from that of most other chip makers. Most designers either include traffic management as a feature of a programmable network processor or build a separate chip entirely for this function.

Analysts like this integrated approach: "Sandburst has achieved an impressive integration level with HiBeam," says Jag Bolaria, senior analyst with the Linley Group.

But Bolaria also notes that the forwarding engine, which is a fixed application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) rather than a fully programmable processor, is limited in its capabilities. If deeper packet lookups are required, customers should choose another network processor, such as Intel's.

A partnership with Intel will not, in itself, be enough to ensure Sandburst's success. Intel is hedging its bets by partnering with a couple of other switch fabric vendors, namely ZettaCom Inc. and TeraCross Ltd.

Competition in this area is fierce: More than 30 vendors are readying packet processing silicon for OC192 (10-Gbit/s) line rates. Some are developing partial solutions, while others, like Sandburst, are planning to deliver the whole shebang. Notably, Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC) (Nasdaq: AMCC) is already shipping chips that cover all three functions (see AMCC Ships 10-Gbit/s Processor and AMCC Raises Eyebrows).

On the switch fabric front, Agere Systems (NYSE: AGR) is a key competitor, offering a fabric, the Pi40, that it claims scales to 2.56 Tbit/s of real, terminated traffic. It also expects to have a 10-Gbit/s programmable network processor by the end of the year.

Coincidentally, Intel seems to have influenced Sandburst's formation, in a roundabout way. The startup was founded by Arvind, a man with only one name. He's a professor of computer science and engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who decided to apply his expertise in computer processing to the communications market because, as he likes to say, "Intel has taken the fun out of the microprocessor market. Whatever kind of architecture you can build, Intel's got the market cornered."

The company has received $36M in venture funding so far. In addition to Intel Capital, investors include Investor AB, Matrix Partners, Greylock, and 3i Group PLC, among others.

— Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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