Mindspeed Switch Fabric Lives On
You're not alone. It's been more than 18 months since Mindspeed Technologies, the data-communications arm of chip maker Conexant Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CNXT), announced iScale (see Mindspeed Releases Chipset).
Well, iScale never went away, and Mindspeed announced yesterday that the chip set has been shipping inside the NEC Corp. (Nasdaq: NIPNY)CX4200 edge router for about a year (see NEC Selects Mindspeed). The box has picked up design wins with NTT Communications Corp. and Japan Telecom Co. Ltd., and NEC apparently is readying the second generation of the box for sales internationally.
The announcement comes rather late, but that's partly the result of systems vendors not wanting to disclose their component choices. "NEC was in a very competitive situation trying to get their system up very quickly without anybody knowing about it," says Elie Massabki, Mindspeed executive director of marketing. "We're sort of letting everybody know we're still in this business."
Mindspeed's quiet demeanor might be the result of its financial situation. Mindspeed is losing money and is putting its time into the top few product lines that could help stop the bleeding, says analyst Jag Bolaria of chip-research firm The Linley Group. "So at the highest level, they're not really focusing on switch fabrics as one of the top three or four things," he says.
Mindspeed officials deny that there's been any explicit de-emphasis of iScale, but they do admit to cutting back on developing high-end products, a tactic shared by several other chip makers that binged on acquisitions in 1999 and 2000 (see Axe Falls at Broadcom and Vitesse Drops Some Packets).
The CX4200 is using the iScale for capacities up to 40 Gbit/s so far; Massabki hinted that higher-capacity versions of the box are in the works but wouldn't quote us any numbers.
He also wouldn't disclose how much money the CX4200 win has meant to Mindspeed, although it's probably not a huge figure. The IP edge-router market measured just $285 million in the third quarter of 2002, according to Susana Vidal, analyst with Synergy Research Group, and NEC hasn't registered as a major player there. "I believe they do not have a big participation in that market," she says.
One unanswered question is why NEC chose Mindspeed over Erlang Technology, the St. Louis company that's been designing switch fabrics with NEC's help (see NEC Partners with Erlang Technology).
Massabki suggests NEC was interested in iScale's on-chip serializer-deserializer (SerDes) circuits, a product of Conexant's 2000 acquisition of HotRail (see Conexant to Buy Hotrail). SerDes takes high-speed input flows and divides them into multiple lanes of slower-speed flows that are more easily processed by a chip. According to Massabki, other switch fabric vendors use embedded SerDes but haven't overcome the noise and loss of signal integrity that arise when high-speed signals get sent across the backplane.
"A lot of our competitors are struggling," and even ASIC companies have trouble getting on-chip SerDes to run right, Massabki says.
— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading