ZettaCom Advances With ZEST (& ZEN)

Wu-Fu Chen startup gets a step closer to delivering chip sets for terabit routers

May 9, 2001

4 Min Read
ZettaCom Advances With ZEST (& ZEN)

LAS VEGAS -- Network+Interop -- ZettaCom Inc. yesterday announced the immediate commercial availability of two chipsets for making bigger and better high-speed routers and switches (see ZettaCom Offers OC192 Solution).

One of the chipsets, the ZEST-200 switch fabric, has the potential to create the industry’s first genuine terabit router. In theory, it could be used to make a switch with 128 OC192 (10 Gbit/s) ports -- a total of 1.28 Tbit/s of capacity.

In practice, however, there’s a bunch of reasons why this isn't going to happen any time soon.

For a kickoff, current technology only permits a single OC192 interface per line card, so it’s unlikely that system vendors will be able to cram more than 16 OC192 interfaces into a chassis.

Linking together multiple chassis to deliver 128 OC192 interfaces raises other technical challenges, according to Dave Gampell, director of marketing for communication products at a ZettaCom competitor, PowerX Networks Inc. “Just because [ZettaCom’s] chipset can theoretically support that many interfaces doesn’t mean it can do that over multiple chassis,” he says.

Paul Liesenberg, ZettaCom’s VP of strategic marketing, acknowledges this and says that the “sweet spot” for ZettaCom's chip sets is actually gear with between 16 and 32 OC192 ports. There’s hardly any demand for much larger-scale switches and routers right now, he adds. PowerX is shipping chipsets for switches with up to 32 OC48 ports and says OC192 chipsets are under development.

The other reason why ZettaCom’s talk of terabit-scale switches should be taken with a pinch of sodium chloride is that the startup has only solved part of the problem. It’s yet to ship its network processor chip, the ZEN-MSP, which is needed for handling different types of traffic such as IP, ATM, and gigabit Ethernet. This is scheduled for general availability later this year.

Also, ZettaCom hasn’t integrated high-speed serial interfaces (SerDes) in its chip, unlike at least one of its competitors, Vitesse Semiconductor Corp. (Nasdaq: VTSS), which also announced developments in this field yesterday (see Vitesse's Balancing Act ). ZettaCom “still hasn’t got the level of integration we’ve achieved,” says Rob Sturgill, Vitesse’s director of marketing for switch fabric products.

ZettaCom takes the view that SerDes technology is undergoing a big leap forward at the moment (see Velio Cleans Up for an example). As a result, system developers are better off buying their SerDes chips separately, so they can cash in on those developments, according to Liesenberg.

The other chipset that figured in ZettaCom’s announcement yesterday is the ZEN-QM2000, the QM standing for "queue manager." It enables system vendors to build switches that prioritize different types of traffic by putting packets into different buffers. Zettacom says it can manage a total of 1 million queues -- a figure that has competitors raising their eyebrows.

Still, that’s exactly the reaction ZettaCom got when it announced its intentions to build its ZEST switching fabric and ZEN network processor in August last year. Back then, competitors were dubious. One of them said: “If they can do it, hats off to them” and noted that developing just one of ZettaCom’s chipsets could easily take a team of 50 engineers two years (see Zettacom: Hurry Up and Wait).

But even the doubters acknowledged that ZettaCom had to be taken seriously. The startup was founded by Wu-Fu Chen, a legendary entrepreneur, and a lot of its management team were previously heavy hitters at Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Stratacom, the ATM switch developer bought by Cisco. Incidentally, many of the top guns at Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR) have a similar ancestry.

Liesenberg reckons that ZettaCom’s biggest potential competitors won't be the likes of IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), PowerX, and Vitesse. They'll be the folk within Cisco, Juniper, and other router vendors who still insist on developing their own ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits) rather than buying off-the-shelf chipsets.

Liesenberg feels it’s time these engineers acknowledge that hardware development should be outsourced to chip vendors like ZettaCom. Their focus should be on software development, he says.Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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