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Marvell Readies GigE Attack

In the market for Gigabit Ethernet switch chips, Marvell is making its move against Broadcom

January 7, 2003

6 Min Read
Marvell Readies GigE Attack

In the realm of Gigabit Ethernet switching, a turf battle is unfolding between Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: MRVL) and Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM).

Well, OK, it's a mild battle so far: It's small, because Gigabit Ethernet hasn't hit mainstream volumes yet; and it's one-sided, because Broadcom appears to have gotten its chips out before Marvell. But with Marvell announcing the final piece of its Prestera chip family yesterday (see Marvell Intros Switch Fabric), and with its other related chips now shipping in volume, the companies are set to go mano a mano in what's expected to be a big year for Gigabit Ethernet adoption.

Just to be clear, we're talking about Gigabit Ethernet switch chips, which handle data at Layers 2 through 4 and represent the guts of systems provided by the likes of Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Foundry Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: FDRY), or Netgear Inc. That's not the same as Ethernet controllers, the latter being physical-layer devices built by Broadcom, Marvell, and Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) (see Is Intel's GigE Chip on Hold?).

In switch chips, it's been mostly Marvell and Broadcom. For Fast Ethernet (100 Mbit/s), Broadcom has pitted its ROBOSwitch and StrataSwitch product lines against the GalNet family that Marvell picked up by acquiring Galileo Technology Ltd. in 2001.

Exact stats for 2002 aren't compiled yet, but "it's clear that Broadcom and Marvell are the two most dominant players" in Ethernet switch chips, says Sean Lavey, analyst with IDC. "If Broadcom and Marvell owned 90 percent of the market in 2002, then the split was about 60-40."

To tackle the Gigabit market, Broadcom continued with StrataSwitch and also introduced the StrataXGS high-end line, which began sampling in May (see Broadcom Intros GigE Switch).

Marvell is countering with the Prestera MX, EX, and DX chip families, targeting metro, enterprise, and desktop systems, respectively. The idea was to have one chip architecture with varieties spanning all sizes of systems, but the chips were late in getting to volume. In early December, Broadcom vice president Ford Tamer told Light Reading: "They're debugging samples while we're ramping to production." (For more on Broadcom's product strategy, see the Light Reading interview with company founder and CTO Henry Samueli.)

Barry Gray, Marvell director of product marketing, notes that all three Prestera varieties hit volume shipments in the fourth quarter of 2002. "They are just ramping up this quarter," he says.

And yesterday, Marvell completed the last piece in its plans with announcement of the Prestera FX9210 and 9110, crossbar chips intended to move Prestera beyond pizza-box Ethernet systems and into carrier chassis. The carrier segment has been "kind of a hole" in Marvell's plans so far, Gray concedes.

Marvell even might have an inside track with some OEMs. Its physical-layer (PHY) chip is being used in Intel's Gigabit Ethernet controller, and that's won Marvell some fans. "Marvell's doing a very good job on the PHY side, which is starting to pull a lot of allegiance to their chip sets," IDC's Lavay says. "They aren't publicly saying this, but Cisco is almost exclusively using Marvell on the PHY side."

All in the family
You might wonder how Marvell became such a factor in Ethernet, considering the company was founded in 1995 to make disk-drive components. It's still in that market, but Marvell officials wanted to steer the company towards communications -- Ethernet in particular -- as they prepared for the company's IPO in 2000.

In order to do this, Marvell acquired Galileo, although the courtship between the two companies started the other way around, with Galileo thinking about acquiring Marvell.

At the time, Galileo was pushing the high end of Ethernet switch chips, competing with customer ASICs. Broadcom had started at the low end in this market but was advancing all the time, nipping at Galileo's heels.

"We were doing our M&A activity, and we came across Marvell, which was really a read-channel company that was just coming out with a Gigabit [Ethernet] PHY," says Ed Rodriguez, Galileo's former chief operating officer, now CEO of BitBlitz Communications Inc.

It seemed like a good match, but Marvell is a quirky company. Incorporated in Bermuda, it's run by the husband-and-wife team of Sehat Sutardja (CEO) and Weili Dai (executive vice president); combined with Mr. Sutardja's brother, they owned more than 50 percent of the company following the IPO, according to Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) documents (their combined ownership has since dropped to 50 percent).

"It was clear they had no intention of losing that company," Rodriguez says. "But they did see some value in working together, and we did. We made a formidable pair against Broadcom."

Once Marvell went public, its executives began seeking ways to beef up the Ethernet business, and Galileo was an obvious acquisition target. "At that time, we were being courted by two other companies from an acquisition standpoint," Rodriguez says. "We saw a lot more synergy with Marvell."

And even though the companies had been friendly, the merger announcement was a surprise. "I was in line at McDonald's waiting for my Egg McMuffin, and I heard KGO [local news radio] say Marvell had just bought Galileo," Gray says. "It's been a great matchup."

Special FX
The last major piece of the Prestera strategy consists of the Prestera FX chips, which actually are two-chip sets: the FX fabric adapters, which were announced in April, and the crossbar chips announced this week.

The Prestera FX chips target high-end chassis-based systems. Broadcom officials are quick to note they can offer the same functionality with the general-purpose switch fabric announced in June (see Broadcom Launches New Switch Fabric).

A typical chassis arrangement would have a series of line cards, each connected to the backplane via a Prestera FX fabric adapter. The Prestera FX crossbar -- the FX9210 or FX9110 -- would then reside on its own switching card.

Crossbars are a commonplace idea, but Marvell's put a bit of ingenuity into the new devices. A typical crossbar looks like a section of graph paper -- a mesh of perpendicular lines that can connect any ingress port to any egress port. Connections are made by activating particular intersections to divert electrical current accordingly. (For more on packet switch chip architectures, see Packet Switch Chips.)

Marvell's FX crossbars work a bit differently: Each input port has a buffer memory for every possible output port. Incoming signals are assigned to the proper queue for their destination, then sent through the crossbar to the appropriate egress port. "It performs a switching function, but there's no switching. Every input is always connected to every output," Gray says.

The FX9210 has 12 ports, each with six 3.125-Gbit/s serializer-deserializer (SerDes) elements; the FX9110 has only nine ports, again with six SerDes per port.

Naturally, Broadcom officials downplayed the announcement, noting that their general-purpose switch fabric -- the BCM8320 and BCM8332 chip set -- can handle the same functionality (see Broadcom Launches New Switch Fabric).

Tamer also notes that Marvell is creating the illusion of momentum by having more press releases than Broadcom. Prestera, for example, was unveiled in four releases beginning December 2001. "They make separate press announcements for the crossbar, separate announcements for the fabric adapters. We make one announcement for the whole chip family," he says.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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