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Cavium and ABIT Target VPNs

A deal that could end up slashing the cost of equipment supporting secure virtual private networks was announced today by Cavium Networks and ABIT Computer Corp. (see ABIT, Cavium Team on Motherboards).

Under the deal, ABIT is now shipping server motherboards that incorporate Cavium's security processor. The combination offers a lower-cost alternative to specialized security appliances -- which in the long run could include switches supporting IPsec and SSL (secure sockets layer) VPNs.

Other companies have offered security add-in boards, and competitors Hifn Inc. (Nasdaq: HIFN) and Corrent Corp. provide reference designs for motherboards that include a system microprocessor. But with the ABIT deal, Cavium appears to be the first to offer a complete turnkey motherboard -- that is, a board suitable for shipping straight to customers or for dropping directly into systems.

"For specialty logic like the security processor, it's natural," says Greg Fawson, analyst with Semico Research Corp. "The first evolution of these things is to be on an add-in card. It's a natural extension to go on the motherboard."

Cavium makes chips that accelerate security protocols such as IPSec and SSL. A server's microprocessor could handle these tasks, but usually at a hit to performance, as security involves complex bookkeeping for handling hundreds or thousands of concurrent sessions, not to mention unusual large-integer mathematics used in encryption formulas.

That's prompted a wave of security-offloading chips from companies such as Cavium, Corrent, and Hifn (see Gigabit Security's in the Chips), all of which claim to add security, without the performance penalty, to systems such as e-commerce servers and gateways. (For more on recent security developments, check out the Light Reading Webinar on the topic.)

Considering ABIT's history of catering to PC-based servers, the companies' likely first targets are off-the-shelf servers from the likes of Dell Computer Corp. (Nasdaq: DELL) or Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ). "Given the form factor, given who ABIT's customers are, I'm seeing this going more into the 1U and 2U server markets," Fawson says.

Cavium is hoping to tap the security-appliance market as well, however, possibly providing a cheaper, ready-made alternative to the hardware provided by vendors such as NetScreen Technologies Inc. (Nasdaq: NSCN) and SonicWall Inc. (Nasdaq: SNWL).

"People will write their own software, put it on a motherboard, and make their own appliance. And since Pentiums are becoming cheaper, they're going to be able to compete with the NetScreens and SonicWalls, the appliance guys," says Amer Haider, Cavium's head of strategic marketing.

Despite that possibility, Cavium officials hope appliance makers will become customers rather than enemies. As frequently happens in the chip business, the systems vendors can better add value through software than through hardware -- so, Haider asks, why not provide the hardware ready-made?

Fawson agrees that Cavium's first board-level ventures won't usurp any NetScreen or SonicWall boxes just yet. "There's no competition -- those guys are going to buy those boards," he says. "You almost want to call it a white-box server or an off-the-shelf server."

Still, Cavium officials say that as security prices drop, board-level products might be on their way toward replacing system-level security appliances.

"If you can buy a Pentium motherboard with a security processor on it for $300, you're going to start competing with the $1,500 security appliances," Haider says.

The first Cavium-ABIT board, the SI-1Ns, targets 10/100 Ethernet systems and includes a CN1005, one of Cavium's lower-end parts. That board is already shipping, and Cavium is at work on more advanced motherboards as well.

"We already have a Gigabit [Ethernet] VPN server on a Pentium running in our lab," Haider says. Compared to what he says is a $40,000 price tag for a VPN appliance, it costs $2,500 for the server and a "couple hundred dollars" for the Cavium motherboard.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading
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