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December 10, 2002
Chipmaker Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: MRVL) has taken the concept of reference designs one step further, offering a "platform kit" that is essentially a ready-made Ethernet switch.
Most semiconductor vendors build reference designs -- bare-bones shells of boards or systems, designed to show how a particular chip would work in the real world. Marvell is adding software integration, validation testing and documentation, and even training for the OEM's support staff. All that's left for the OEM to do is add some proprietary software and the cosmetic touches such as logos and a user interface.
The move is interesting on two counts. First, Marvell's only one step shy of becoming an Ethernet switch maker. Second, the platform strategy is a reflection of how much the Ethernet switch market has commoditized.
As for actually becoming an Ethernet switch vendor, Marvell says it's not gonna happen. "It's just not in our plans," says Barry Gray, director of product marketing. He says the OEMs' real strength lies in their brand names and distribution channels.
Gray says the shift is designed to help customers develop products faster. System design using the production kits would take two to four months, Marvell officials estimate. That's compared with six to 12 months for a system built using a Marvell reference design, or nine to 18 months for a system built from scratch.
Marvell's first three production kits are centered on the company's GalNet and Prestera switching chips. The GalNet-24G and Prestera-EX24G are 24-port Ethernet switches for the LAN. The Prestera-C7, intended for wiring closets, supports up to 240 Gbit/s of traffic in various combinations of Fast Ethernet, Gigabit Ethernet, and 10-Gigabit Ethernet.
For some customers, that kind of speed is paramount. As an example, Gray cited the Taiwanese original design manufacturers (ODMs) that sell to the OEMs. "What [the Taiwanese vendor] wants to have is a shelf full of products," covering as many permutations as possible.
The platform kits also might give lower-end developers an entrée into more complex switches. "Companies that didn't have the capabilities to develop and test something like that can now get to market really easily," says Peter Newton, product line manager for Netgear Inc..
NetGear makes both managed and unmanaged Ethernet switches, and Newton thinks Marvell's platform offerings will be a particular help on the managed side.
Newton says he's not worried about Marvell diving into the systems business any time soon, however. "There's a lot to it beyond just having the chips. You've got to develop a [distribution] channel and a brand," he says. "Our concern is that it's enabling our competitors at the low end to come out with managed switches more easily."
It could be some time before Marvell gets any competition in the platform-kit arena. Few vendors other than Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) and Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) have the breadth of products to even try this strategy, and it's unclear that either of those companies wants to offer a turnkey switch.
"We could go that far, but there's a fine line. You have to decide what business you're in," says Ford Tamer, Broadcom's vice president of networking infrastructure.
— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading
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