Comms chips

Netronome Reigniting Intel's IXP

The Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) network processor is making a comeback.

Which might be an odd statement to make, considering Intel held a leading market share. But Intel lost interest in network processors, and Netronome , which licensed the rights to the IXP2800 chip line in 2007, wants to give the products a new life.

Netronome says it's ready to come out swinging with the NFP, an IXP successor that boasts faster processor cores and added features. Light Reading got some early details of the chip recently during the RSA Conference, chatting with Netronome folks outside the painfully chic W Hotel in San Francisco.

The NFP plan has two parts, says Jarrod Siket, Netronome's senior vice president of sales and marketing. First, the chip's got new features that will expand its potential market beyond switches and routers, and into Netronome's traditional market of security boxes and other types of network appliances. (See Netronome Systems Inc.)

But Netronome also has to play some defense. Customers have stayed faithful to the Intel IXPs, but with those devices essentially in stasis for more than two years, Netronome has to get new products into customers' hands.

"Our business model is to get our hands on those sockets before somebody else converts them," Siket says.

The danger is real. The IXP still has a leading market share of around 36 percent in terms of revenues, Siket claims. But competitors EZchip Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: EZCH) and Xelerated Inc. , and to a lesser extent, Bay Microsystems Inc. , have been piling on the press releases during the last two years, showing an aggressive streak that the IXP has long lacked. (See EZchip: New Routers Remain on Track, Huawei Picks Xelerated, Bay Shows at Nxtcomm, and Chip Fight! EZchip Takes on Xelerated.)

"Intel had key design wins at Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. Since it's been such a long time, I sense Huawei has moved on to other architectures," says Bob Wheeler, an analyst with The Linley Group . Cisco, though, has enough of a software investment behind the IXPs -- the parts were reportedly difficult to program, something else Netronome is trying to change -- that it's going to welcome a chance to stick with the architecture, he says.

In terms of speeds and sizes, the NFP is targeting 20-Gbit/s transport and will start with 16 processor cores -- the most Intel ever put on an IXP -- and will go up to 40 cores. That figure bests the 32 cores Cavium Inc. (Nasdaq: CAVM) will eventually put on the Octeon II -- which isn't a directly comparable part, but it's fun matching up core numbers. (See Cavium Sprouts More Cores.)

More important, Netronome is expanding the NFP's reach.

Network processors were originally designed to help switches and routers forward packets quickly. They cracked open every packet, made switching or routing decisions, and moved to the next packet, so speed was the important metric. Netronome wants to broaden that charter to include some of the Layer 2 through 7 functions that regular processors often handle -- deep packet inspection or intrusion detection, for instance.

That would bring the NFP into the appliance market. Those functions could also come in handy on routers, where the NFP could start taking those jobs from the general-purpose microprocessor that's also on most line cards -- freeing up the general-purpose processor to handle its other tasks.

The trick will be to get the added features to run without slowing down the NFP (and, guess what? Netronome claims it will).

The change that might catch the most attention, though, is that the NFP is wired to work with ordinary memory chips. Intel had tailored the IXP to use snazzy memory chips from Rambus Inc. (Nasdaq: RMBS), which were fast but pricey.

"The beauty of the Netronome devices is that by moving away from RDRAM, they provided the really big cost savings," Wheeler says. Siket claims the amount could run in the hundreds of dollars for a card.

Switch and router vendors would likely buy the NFP chip itself and place it on their line cards; that's how network processors typically have been sold. Netronome is pledging prices equal to or below Intel's, but that doesn't mean they'll be given away. "This is not a high-volume cheap part. It's a high-volume expensive part," Siket says.

For the appliance vendors, Netronome intends to go with its usual business model of selling cards. NFP-based cards will sell for $750 to $2,500, Siket estimates.

— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading

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