Niche Chip Players Move Up the Stack
Until now, Cavium has focused on co-processors, chips that would be adjuncts to a network processor or microprocessor. Cavium chips such as the Nitrox II handle security tasks, freeing up the main processor to do other work. (See last year's report: Security Processors.)
Cavium's Octeon, announced yesterday, is a different breed, a full-blown processor for Layers 4-7 networking applications including security. It's made of multiple home-grown microprocessors along with specialized hardware for functions such as packet dissection (see Cavium Intros Services Processor).
The goal is to go beyond security into Layers 4-7 applications, as the microprocessors inside Octeon can be programmed to perform arbitrary functions. As is usual for semiconductor companies, Cavium is saying it can distill most functions of an appliance onto one chip.
The chip isn't meant to replace systems vendors; rather, it would be sold to them. "Instead of having three or four different boxes trying to do one function each at the gigabit level, now you just have one box," says Syed Ali, Cavium's CEO.
Applications breadth might be necessary for Cavium's survival, as the market for specialty security hardware -- which also includes Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM), Corrent Corp., and Layer N Networks Inc. -- isn't that large. Moreover, security is starting to get absorbed into processors (see Chipmakers Flock to Security, Broadcom Adds Security to Switches, IDT Processor Embeds Security, and Intel Moves on Security). To counter the trend, Cavium and Hifn are taking a "strike first" approach by doing processors of their own.
"The next generation of communications IC companies that are going to be successful are going to work at higher layers, [with chips that are] making decisions based on the payload itself," Ali says. "The growth is going to come from services that sit on top of what's already been deployed."
Hifn officials say they're already well down this path, having acquired the Picoprocessor PowerNP network processor line from IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) early this year. "We've been positioning it like that for some time," says Russell Dietz, Hifn's chief technology officer. "I consider [Octeon] to be Cavium's response to our acquisition." (See Hifn Acquires IBM's PowerNP Products.)
Hifn says it's got its next step in the works, in the form of an architecture called Antero. The company plans to discuss its roadmap at next month's Network Systems Design Conference.
Octeon has one announced customer in SonicWall Inc. (Nasdaq: SNWL). But it's unclear how the product will catch on with other appliance vendors. One problem is that the "services" area is taking on some difficult problems that might still warrant specialized hardware.
"There's no such thing yet -- and it probably isn't on the near horizon -- as a single chip that does everything we need," says Marc Willebeek-LeMair, CTO of TippingPoint Technologies Inc., a maker of intrusion detection appliances.
Willebeek-LeMair thinks Cavium is working in the right direction and notes that silicon keeps opening new possibilities on the systems side. TippingPoint uses a mix of custom and off-the-shelf chips, and chip advancements are the reason the company came into being in the first place. "There were a lot of components that just never existed before," he says.
Octeon, by the way, is a home-grown product, not related to the processor Cavium acquired from the ruins of Brecis Communications (see Cavium Acquires Brecis Product Line). That chip is being used as a lower-end alternative to Octeon.
Octeon consists of 64-bit (read: very high end) microprocessors based on the architecture licensed out by MIPS Technologies Inc. (Nasdaq: MIPS; OTC: MIPBV). Cavium certainly had the chops to do something like this. Its 85 employees include designers who worked on Alpha, a high-end microprocessor developed by Digital Equipment Corp. in the 90s. DEC would eventually sell its semiconductor division to Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), a deal that included the network processor that Intel later named the IXP1200.
To aid its cause, Cavium is enlisting third-party software providers to write code for the chip, one example being Intoto Inc. (see Intoto Works With Cavium's Octeon).
— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading
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