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Network Processors Proliferate

Light Reading
News Analysis
Light Reading
9/19/2000

Several announcements made yesterday highlight the emergence of a new type of component -- the network processor -- for use in high performance routers and switches.

The news includes the launch of a startup, Bay Microsystems Inc. (see Bay Microsystems Debuts), a product announcement from Lara Networks Inc. (see Lara's Net Database Coprocessor), and a patent announcement from EZchip Technologies (a subsidiary of Lanoptics Ltd. -- Nasdaq: LNOP)(see EZChip Files Processor Patent).

Designed to serve as off-the-shelf network building blocks, network processors are chips that perform specific functions at optical network speeds, such as filtering or labeling IP packets, monitoring packets, performing QOS (quality-of-service) assignments, and load balancing.

A subset of network processors, called coprocessor chips, further refine the concept. These chips, from vendors like Lara Networks, are designed to offload tasks such as encryption/decryption, classification, and router table lookups, from core network processors.

Up to now, vendors have typically created their own ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits) to handle these functions. This process can consume 18 to 24 months and costs millions.

Network processors promise to alleviate ASIC agony. They incorporate generic functions in off-the-shelf chips, which manufacturers of terabit routers and core and edge switches will be able to plug directly into system boards. Accompanying software will let them customize as needed.

The market for network processors was established by the likes of IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), Agere (recently acquired by Lucent Technologies Inc. -- NYSE: LU), and C-Port Corp. (recently purchased by Motorola Inc. -- NYSE: MOT). Newcomers such as Bay Microsystems, Lara Networks, and Wu-Fu Chen startup Zettacom Inc., which announced its Zen network processor last month (see Zettacom: Hurry Up and Wait), have since joined the lineup.

Three of these companies featured in the news yesterday:

  • Bay Microsystems plans to release a half-duplex OC192 line card that it says can be used to process packets in devices such as terabit routers and optical edge switches. The Santa Clara-based Bay Micro says its chip will be offered in mid-2001.

  • EZchip announced patent filings for a series of network processors that it says can be used for QOS, VPN (virtual private network) configuration, URL switching, server load balancing, SLA (service-level agreement) tracking, usage-based billing, and a suite of other applications.

  • Lara Networks announced a series of new "network application processors," or coprocessors, called the LNI8010, optimized for handling intensive database lookups, such as those in terabit routing tables.

    On the downside, none of the components mentioned in the news yesterday is yet shipping. But that's not stopping the momentum behind them. EZchip's news, for instance, helped raise Lanoptics stock price nearly 6 points yesterday, while Nasdaq itself fell over 108 points.

    "Network processors are going to revolutionize the network interface market," says Colin Mick, principal of The Mick Group, a consultancy. Mick is helping to coordinate a series of industry efforts aimed at making network processors even more generic through the use of common APIs (application program interfaces) that enable chipsets from multiple vendors to share a common set of programing commands. These efforts include the Common Switch Interface Consortium, the Common Processor Interface Consortium, and an as-yet-unnamed effort to create a set of benchmarks for the upcoming APIs.

    Other sources agree that network processors are the wave of the future, even if they are late arriving on the scene. "We see a growing interest in these components," says Dominic Herity of Silicon & Software, a design services company in Dublin. He says the new market that's forming is helping to reshape the way high-performance networking gear is designed.

    -- Mary Jander, senior editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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