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Cavium Claims Ethernet Switch BreakthroughCavium Claims Ethernet Switch Breakthrough

Chip vendor moves into the Ethernet switch market with a product set designed for the SDN data center market, issuing a challenge to market leader Broadcom.

September 16, 2014

5 Min Read
Cavium Claims Ethernet Switch Breakthrough

Chipmaker Cavium has thrust itself headlong into the Ethernet switching silicon sector with bold claims and an enticing new product set that looks set to ask a lot of questions of market leader Broadcom.

Cavium Inc. (Nasdaq: CAVM), which currently derives its revenues from various server processors and components used in multiple networking systems and servers, is entering the Ethernet switch market courtesy of Xpliant, the startup that Cavium is now in the process of acquiring for $75 million. (See Cavium Joins The SDN Chip Set With Xpliant Acquisition , Cavium Powers an LTE Pixie and Qosmos Integrates Cavium Chips.)

Xpliant was formed in 2011, with Cavium as one of its early investors, with a mission to develop Ethernet switching products that marry high-speed throughput with flexibility/programmability, a "holy grail" combination not currently available on the market. Current Ethernet switch chips are either high-speed but hard-coded, such as Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM)'s market-leading products, or flexible (numerous processors and FPGAs), not both.

Now Cavium says the startup was successful, leading to today's launch of a new line of Ethernet switch chips and the Xpliant Packet Architecture (XPA) that offer packet throughputs from 880 Gbit/s up to 3.2 Tbit/s with full programmability. The switches have been designed to sell to Ethernet switch system vendors, which can then deploy them in the top-of-rack (TOR) and "spine" switches that are sold to data center operators and communications network operators.

Cavium General Manager Eric Hayes says the XPA products have been designed with the near-term and future needs of data center operators and telcos in mind, combining very high packet throughput speeds (already being needed as cloud, video, mobile broadband and IoT traffic volumes grow dramatically) with programmability. That combination is becoming increasingly essential to support multiple new applications and protocols, particularly those related to SDN and other virtualization capabilities, without the need to deploy new switches for each update.

"New protocols are emerging… innovation is ripe, especially in the data center sector," notes Hayes, citing GENEVE (Generic Network Virtualization Encapsulation), VxLAN (Virtual Extensible LAN) and NvGRE (Network Virtualization using Generic Routing Encapsulation) as just some of the protocols supported by XPA.

Want to know more about Ethernet-related developments? Check out our dedicated Ethernet/IP content channel here on Light Reading.

The new product family also supports the emerging 25GigE specifications currently being developed, an extensive set of protocols for Layer 2 and Layer 3 bridging/routing, tunneling and overlays, standard API support, and the inclusion of a specific management CPU designed to offload some of the burden from the host CPU. (See IEEE Picks Up 25Gbit/s Ethernet Cause.)

Cavium's pitch to Ethernet switch system vendors is that, at around the current average price for Ethernet switch products, its new product line can deliver higher speeds and greater flexibility that enables system-level differentiation (because the system vendors can load up their own blend of applications). It also claims that its new line offers improved total cost of ownership (TCO), as the chips can be used for much longer before needing to be replaced (because they are programmable).

It seems like a very attractive proposition, so why hasn't anyone else done this? Xpliant marketing consultant Dan Tuchler says the startup has been focused on building the fast-and-flexible chips from scratch from day one -- this is not a legacy product with enhancements -- and importantly the R&D team involved software as well as hardware specialists. "This has been very difficult to develop," notes Tuchler.

So has Cavium developed a product line worthy of attention?

"This is an exciting development," states Heavy Reading contributing analyst and components specialist Simon Stanley. "The Xpliant switch that is expected to sample during the fourth quarter has clear advantages over competing devices from Broadcom, Intel, Marvell and Mellanox. The 3.2Tbit/s capacity is more than double the competition; it should be the first switch device with 25Gbit/s serial links and the device is significantly more flexible than competing devices," notes Stanley in comments emailed to Light Reading.

"The flexibility is key for SDN and NFV applications, and Cavium is promising that this configurability is delivered with no impact on performance and at no additional cost. This is a critical challenge to Broadcom, the market leader, which has almost no flexibility built into switch devices. Broadcom will need to respond to this challenge," notes the analyst.

And while Cavium gained its new Ethernet switch expertise through its acquisition of Xpliant, Broadcom might not be able to go down the same route and save on development time, suggests Stanley. "There are very few switch chipset developers left in the market, so Broadcom may need to develop rather than acquire the technology. Broadcom is already developing next-generation devices with 25Gbit/s serial links that are likely to support a similar capacity, but it's not clear yet if these devices will also deliver increased flexibility."

The new products are being offered up for sampling before the end of the year, with Cavium's Hayes expecting them to be deployed in commercially available data center switch systems before the end of 2015.

Clearly this gives Broadcom, and others, some time to react, but Hayes is relishing the outcome and is confident that XPA will make a significant splash. "It's game on right now!" he proclaimed.

— Ray Le Maistre, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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