Comms chips

Net Processors Gain Ground, Slowly

Network processors are still missing half the telecom market, but they're picking up supporters among systems OEMs, according to the latest survey from Light Reading's Comm Chip Insider.

Half of the survey's respondents said they "never" use application-specific standard products (ASSPs) -- off-the-shelf chips including network processors -- in systems design.

But there's a ray of hope from the 12 percent of respondents who said they use ASSPs "whenever possible."

The results are included in "ASICs & FPGAs for Telecom Applications: A Buyer Survey," a report examining how the devices are being used in telecom circles. The survey involved 91 individuals from 50 systems manufacturers, most of them U.S.-based.

FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays) and ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits), the primary subjects of the report, have fought a tug-of-war for years. Systems designs traditionally are built using ASICs, customized chips that can be built on the most advanced of production lines by giants such as IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), LSI Logic Corp. (NYSE: LSI), and NEC Corp. (Tokyo: 6701).

But FPGAs, built by the likes of Altera Corp. (Nasdaq: ALTR) and Xilinx Inc. (Nasdaq: XLNX), provide a faster route to system design. The chips are generic and programmable, meaning they can mimic ASICs at a much lower cost; the downside is that FPGA-based designs tend to be larger and slower than ASICs.

The Insider report finds 25 percent of respondents use FPGAs "whenever possible," compared with about 14 percent for ASICs. (See AMCC Reports Q1.)

ASSPs represent a third front: the use of pre-built, standard chips as alternatives to ASICs or FPGAs. Network processors are a prime example, made to cover the packet-processing functions common to most linecards while leaving enough programmability to let systems vendors add unique features to their designs.

That half of the respondents don't want to use ASSPs is probably no surprise to the network processor vendors, as companies like Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) have resisted using the chips. But, as the survey suggests, network processors are making inroads.

Wintegra Inc. , which builds network processors for the access market, lists a slew of big-name customers in its SEC filings, including Cisco and Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU). Likewise, sources have suggested Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR) is turning to network processors for certain designs. (See Net Processors Await an IPO and Broadcom May Scoop Sandburst.)

Of course, the ASSP banner isn't limited to network processors -- they just happen to be the most prevalent ASSP application, according to the survey. Other ASSP examples include Ethernet controllers, VOIP chips, and general-purpose communications processors.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

The report, ASICs & FPGAs for Telecom Applications: A Buyer Survey,, is available as part of an annual subscription (12 monthly issues) to Components Insider, priced at $1,295. Individual reports are available for $900. For more information, or to subscribe, please visit: www.lightreading.com/commchip.

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