Comms chips

Intel's Net Processor Invasion

Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) today launched enhancements to the services and software behind its network processors, marking a serious push to gain ground in that market.

All along, network processor firms have had to offer help to customers, in the form of hardware reference designs, sample software, or even programming assistance. Intel does all those things, but will go a bit farther with its highest-end network processors, the IXP2400, IXP2800, and IXP2850 (see Intel Adds to Net Processor Support).

Specifically, Intel is preparing application-specific software kits. Due for 2004 availability, these kits would pack all the code needed to build specific network equipment, such as, say, a DSLAM. In theory, this makes the network processor a "plug and play" device, ready to use without any programming, although Intel is also offering design consulting for those who want to alter the software.

Intel is also adding to its hardware and software support, with new reference designs and tools for the IXP2400 family. More than just a product tweak, the new offerings involve "hundreds" of Intel employees, says John Metz, principal analyst with consulting firm Metz International Ltd.

"They're bumping it up a couple of notches," [Bam!] he says. "It's very high level, a lot of money committed to it to figure out how to grow the network processor revenues."

It's significant that Intel would offer this much help, because its products have often been criticized in terms of ease of use. Comprising an array of general-purpose processors, Intel's IXP network processors are said to be extraordinarily difficult to program, which has led to a cottage industry of software vendors offering support for the chip.

"The criticism is that it's too hard to program, but we've got great tools and we continue to enhance those," says Doug Davis, general manager of Intel's network processor division.

Intel's application kits mimic a general trend in semiconductors. In markets such as Ethernet switches, many systems vendors are low-cost original design manufacturers (ODMs) that want the entire system provided to them, software and all (see Marvell's Ethernet Switch Kit).

Switches and routers haven't gotten to that point, but the model could apply when network processors are used inside IADs and 802.11 access points. "Those are becoming very much ODM types of products," Davis says. All network processor vendors had to provide similar software and support. For example, the Mission offering from Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC) (Nasdaq: AMCC), targeting access networks, includes production-quality software (see AMCC, Cortina Chip Into Multiservice).

Whether customers use it or not varies, says Robin Melnick, director of marketing for AMCC. "You could say they're taking that stuff as a base. We're often involved in helping them think about how they want to take that base and adapt it," Melnick says.

The variance in customers means a network processor company has to offer one of everything, be it sample code, programming tools, whatever. "If you divide the software area into buckets, most of the players have something in each of the buckets," Melnick says.

So, software and support aren't new. But it seems Intel wants to be the most aggressive in those areas. "This is a completely new business group for them. That's a big thing for Intel," Metz says.

Intel's support offerings don't spell the end for third-party vendors such as Silicon & Software Systems Ltd. (S3) and Teja Technologies Inc., whose business models have relied on helping IXP customers, Metz says. Intel is likely to devote its services to the highest-volume customers, which should leave enough business for third-party vendors to pick up, he says.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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