Comms chips

Xelerated Takes On Broadcom, Marvell

Having survived the drought that killed off most network processor vendors, Xelerated Inc. is ready to open a new competitive front, taking on Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) and Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: MRVL) in Ethernet switching.

Today, Xelerated announced its new HX300 line of chips. They include network processors aimed at carrier Ethernet -- successors to the company's X11 family. (See Xelerated Goes Ethernet.)

The most novel of the new chips, though, is the HX310 line of Ethernet switches. It's here that Xelerated is aiming for the StrataXGS and Prestera families offered by Broadcom and Marvell, respectively.

This doesn't mean Xelerated is killing off its partnership with Dune Networks , which also sells switch fabrics. (See Xelerated, Dune Team.) Dune's parts aim at a larger swath of carrier gear; they lack Ethernet-minded touches like integrated media access controllers (MACs), for instance.

Competitor EZchip Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: EZCH) has grabbed much of the attention in what's left of the network processor world. It's gotten wins with big names like Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR). And by being publicly owned, as the lone subsidiary of LanOptics Ltd. (Nasdaq: EZCH), it's caught the eye of some investors. (See Chip Fight! EZchip Takes on Xelerated, EZchip Names Cisco, Juniper, and That Gilder Touch.)

Xelerated, meanwhile, has claimed Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. as a customer. (See Huawei Picks Xelerated.) Xelerated claims it's being chosen for the heart of some Huawei projects, whereas EZchip in some cases is more of an add-on. Case in point: the Juniper EX switch, which pairs up Juniper ASICs with EZchip processors, according to an equipment-vendor source.

It could be argued that Xelerated is looking for a way to distinguish itself from EZchip, but it's more about being able to tap a bigger market, says Tomas Eklund, Xelerated's vice president of marketing and business development.

But Ethernet, from a chip perspective, has its pitfalls. Network processors can sell in the high hundreds of dollars, but any chip calling itself an Ethernet switch can't go for more than half that, says Martin Lund, vice president of Broadcom's network switching business. "They may be surprised" at how quickly prices drop in Ethernet, he says.

The key to the HX310 is that it's programmable, whereas the Broadcom and Marvel options are merely configurable. So, while Xelerated probably can't match Broadcom's prices on chips, officials think they've got an option that turns out to be cheaper.

Why? Because if an Ethernet switch isn't a perfect fit for its design -- if, say, a protocol hasn't been completed yet or is in flux -- engineers will have to "correct" it by adding field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), free-form chips that would sit aside the switch.

"Look at your average linecard. It's a Broadcom switch and an FPGA," Eklund says. "That's the hole we tried to fill with this technology. We don't have to compete on cost against Broadcom. We're absolutely competing on functions."

Broadcom challenges that characterization, noting that more of the protocols are in a stable state today and that Broadcom has a wider range of chips available. Lund says FPGAs get used only in a small percentage of cases. "That's going to get lower and lower over time, because the technology is maturing," he says.

Xelerated may have a point when it comes to the access market, however. GPON linecards, in particular, tend to have that FPGA to provide the packet processing lacking in a Broadcom switch chip. "Xelerated combines that switch and the packet processor into one chip. So, you not only get one chip, but one supplier you have to deal with," says Bob Wheeler, an analyst with The Linley Group .

FPGAs tend to crop up on other access applications, too, given the need for customer-specific features, Wheeler says.

Broadcom and Marvell are the big game here, but Fujitsu Microelectronics America Inc. and Vitesse Semiconductor Corp. (Nasdaq: VTSS) also sell switch chips. Among startups that had tried this market, Greenfield Networks got acquired by Cisco in 2006, while SwitchCore got swallowed up by eSilicon Corp. in December. (See Cisco Goes Greenfield.)

— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading

Pete Baldwin 12/5/2012 | 3:38:49 PM
re: Xelerated Takes On Broadcom, Marvell Forgot to mention those guys. They're around, too:

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