AMCC Introduces Network Processors

Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC) (Nasdaq: AMCC) today announced a trio of chips, including two network processors and an optical switch fabric chip, that it claims will advance the cause of building IP gear for optical networks (see AMCC Announces Edge Platform).

The announcement reflects the growing importance of chips that are both high-speed and programmable. And it expands the range of network processors that developers and OEMs can get from a single, leading supplier of high-speed Sonet chips.

But experts caution developers to dig the details and be ready to make tradeoffs in any network processor decision. It may not be advisable to go with a complete suite of products from a single vendor.

Let's lay out the basics: Designed to serve as off-the-shelf network building blocks, network processors are chips that perform specific functions in optical devices, replacing costly custom ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits) (see Network Processors Proliferate).

Different network processors perform different functions such as managing and sorting data traffic, classifying packets, forwarding packets, framing packets or cells, and switching. They work together via specially designed software. The chips themselves also come with software that enables developers to tweak the functions to match the requirements of their particular devices.

AMCC's announcement encompasses packet forwarding, traffic management, and switching. It includes:

  • The nP7250, a chip that's compatible with data rates of OC48c (2.5 Gbit/s) and can be programmed via integral software libraries supporting ATM and IP

  • The nPX5700, a chip for managing packet or cell traffic according to a range of queueing and filtering methods at rates to OC192 (10 Gbit/s)

  • The nPX5800, a high-speed switch fabric chip that supports up to 160-Gbit/s capacity on a single one-way data stream or 320-Gbit/s full duplex.

    AMCC says samples of the two network processors are scheduled to start shipping this quarter; the switch fabric is slated for Q3 sampling.

    Notably, AMCC's packet forwarding chip, the nP7250, doesn't yet handle OC192, even though the other two chips can do so. "The nP7510, which will support OC192, is on the calendar," says Robin Melnick, director of marketing at AMCC. He won't say exactly when the chips will start sampling.

    AMCC, which acquired its network processor capabilities with the October 2000 purchase of MMC Networks Inc., faces competition from a growing array of vendors large and small. Chief among them is Agere Systems, which says it's shipping its own set of OC48c network processor chipsets with traffic management functions and a switch fabric. Competition also is emerging from IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), and Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT). And a range of smaller companies and startups have joined the fray, including EZchip Technologies, Hyperchip Inc., Lara Networks Inc., and Silicon Access Networks Inc., to name just a few.

    All this activity clearly indicates that network processors are the way of the future for developers of switches and routers. But many vendors focus on just one or two aspects of the problem -- making for a proliferation of solutions that's confusing and complex to implement. AMCC claims to offer an advantage in bringing together a large group of functions in a series of compatible programmable chips from one supplier.

    That may not necessarily be the way to go, experts say. The network processor space is so varied that it may be wiser to choose a traffic manager from one vendor and data forwarding chips from another. But there's a tradeoff there too: Developers will have to work harder to make disparate packages work together.

    "If you're trying for a 'best of breed' solution, perhaps you'd be better served by a range of chips, then putting more work into tuning the interfaces between the chips," says Colin Mick, president of The Mick Group, a consultancy.

    Mick says AMCC's announcement clearly indicates that big Sonet chipmakers are throwing their weight behind network processors. But he asserts that weeding through the best solutions is a task that requires in-depth evaluation of individual chips, scrutinizing features such as performance, scaleability, and the level of programmability each chip offers.

    - Mary Jander, Senior Editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com
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