Optical/IP Networks

BitBlitz Pushes Partnership Program

Competition among manufacturers of serializer-deserializer (SerDes) chips for 10-gigabit Ethernet equipment is hotting up, judging by today’s announcement of a partner program from one of the players, BitBlitz Communications Inc. (see BitBlitzes Router Biz).

BitBlitz says its partner program will make it easier for optical module vendors to design BitBlitz chips into their equipment -- and that will help it keep ahead of the competition.

The Silicon Valley startup claims it’s always been out in front in developing SerDes chips for 10-gig Ethernet. It announced its octal chip, which packs eight 3.125-Gbit/s serial links onto a single piece of silicon, in December 2000 (see BitBlitz Announces 50 Gbit/s Transceiver ) -- a couple of months before Velio Communications Inc. did the same thing (see Velio Cleans Up). In October, a third vendor, Mindspeed Technologies, jumped on the bandwagon with an octal SerDes device of its own (see Mindspeed Unveils Octal SkyRail).

Before digging into the details of BitBlitz’s partner program, it’s worth recalling what SerDes chips are used for. The most common application is in high-speed electrical connections across the printed circuit boards (backplanes) that link together cards in a single chassis.

The chip prepares signals by converting them from a low-speed, parallel interface to a high-speed, serial one and vice versa. In the case of 10-gigabit Ethernet, the signals are aggregated onto four 3.125 Gbit/s channels -- an industry standard called XAUI (eXtended attachment unit interface). The SerDes also includes some signal conditioning circuitry to make sure the signal is readable when it arrives at the other end of the link.

A second use for SerDes is with optical transmitters and receivers. The chip performs the same basic function, aggregating the slow-speed data paths on the card into a high-speed XAUI interface, or vice versa. But the signals don't have to travel over a backplane, they can feed straight into a XAUI-compliant optical module.

BitBlitz’s program targets this second application, and so far eight optical module vendors have signed up. They are Agilent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: A), Alvesta Inc., Blaze Network Products Inc., Ignis Optics, Molex Inc. (Nasdaq: MOLX), Network Elements Inc., Picolight Inc., and Pine Photonics Communications Inc.

Interoperability testing is quite popular right now. Mindspeed, for instance recently completed a test of its SerDes chips with Alvesta, Blaze, and Tyco Electronics (see Mindspeed Passes Ethertest).

According to Leo Wong, BitBlitz's Director of Strategic Marketing, however, the value of the "OpticalBlitz" program is about more than simply proving the interoperability of optical modules with SerDes chips -- which should be ensured anyway if both are truly compliant with XAUI. The idea, he says, is to remove the risk for the systems company, and help them design the parts in faster.

When an optical module maker signs on to the program, it works with BitBlitz to create a reference design, which shows exactly how you hook up the components. A systems company can then use this design as is, or modify it, says Wong. "The main thing is they don't have to start from scratch."

These efforts are laudable, but at the end of the day, there are only two ways to compete, says Bill Woodruff, VP of marketing for Velio: on features or performance. Velio competes on performance, he says, and still wins business based on the clarity of the signal transmitted on the high-speed side of the chip.

BitBlitz promotes its products for their low power consumption. At just 200mW per channel, it claims to be lower than any published data from other vendors, says Wong.

Velio's octal chip now consumes just under 2W, which equates to around 250mW per channel. It's not clear if this really is worse, however, since, as Woodruff points out, there are different ways to measure power. Velio quotes worst case, he says, while BitBlitz gives typical figures, according to its Website.

Mindspeed is in a different camp, since it competes on features, primarily (see Mindspeed Claims SerDes Superiority).

BitBlitz is funded by U.S. Venture Partners and Boulder Ventures. Its CTO, Bin Wu, is a former Agilent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: A) architect, who reportedly designed chips that today run inside the Brocade Communications Systems Inc.'s (Nasdaq: BRCD) Silkworm switch, and Cisco Systems Inc.'s (Nasdaq: CSCO) series 12000 routers.

— Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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