Avici, Riverstone Pick Processors
Going into next week's NPC, being held in Boston, some positive news is starting to appear. Avici Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: AVCI; Frankfurt: BVC7) recently announced it's using an Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) network processor; and Riverstone Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: RSTN) is readying a metro core box using chips from startup Sandburst Corp..
The wins are key, as many of the network-processor startups are running out of time (see Fast-Chip Flees the Market and Cogni-Gone?). With plenty of doubt still lingering about startups, that first customer win is an all-important piece of evidence that the chip maker might still be around later.
"It really depends on the wins you catch in this first wave," says Vince Graziani, Sandburst CEO. "Every win we get, we throw everything at it."
The downturn has played into chip makers' hands by gutting the R&D staffs of many systems companies. Left without the engineering teams needed to design an ASIC, OEMs are turning to off-the-shelf chips, including network processors.
That's the theory, anyway, but chip vendors have relatively few announced design wins to show for it. The claim has been that OEMs don't want to disclose which network processor they're using -- or in some cases don't even want to fess up to using one -- because they consider the chips to be a competitive advantage.
Still, some vendors are beginning to talk. Avici recently announced a multiservice blade based on the IXP2400 from Intel (see Avici Intros Multiservice Line Cards). Among the deciding factors for Avici was that network processors finally had the performance to be viable in a core router.
"In the past there were a lot of promises made, and the technology just wasn't mature enough," says Esmeralda Swartz, Avici vice president of marketing. "We wanted to make sure it could support line rate when advanced features [such as policing and shaping] were turned on."
Another deciding factor was the work Intel had put into its tools for programming the network processor's software. "Intel had a very rich and mature development infrastructure. The SDK [software developers' kit] was very critical to us."
Intel is an established name in the relatively young network processor market. By contrast, Riverstone chose to go with newcomer Sandburst, whose four-chip set includes a network processor, a switch fabric, and an arbiter that handles traffic management.
Sandburst got its first chips back from the fab in the first week of October, and Riverstone had its box running by December. "They were in full production by the end of January, and by early February they were in a live system," says Sandburst's Graziani. (If that seems fast, keep in mind that Riverstone probably got a headstart. Most processor vendors offer simulation environments that let customers design their systems before having the actual chips in hand. Riverstone couldn't be reached for comment.)
Riverstone's first box using Sandburst is aimed at the metro core. Having seen that the chips work, the company is considering using them in lower-end systems as well, Graziani says.
Sandburst's big hope is that the Riverstone win can open doors to other customers -- particularly those hoping to compete with the Catalyst 6509 from Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), according to Graziani. He's particularly hoping to catch the eye of prospects such as Extreme Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: EXTR) and Foundry Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: FDRY). "This is the first generation of product at that high end where [those companies are] considering merchants."
— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading