Comms chips

Net Processors Sport New Look

Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) and Xelerated Inc. this week released their network processors, effectively decommissioning some of the older parts that were built for a different time.

In just a few years, network processor vendors have amassed a rocky history. The chips originally were designed for core routers, aiming to replace the ASICs developed by each systems company separately. But the telecom downturn stifled the core market -- wiping out a whole generation of network processor firms with it -- and companies are still fiddling with their product lines to adapt to the new market (see EZchip Dials Back the Speed and Freescale Halts Net Processor Line).

Intel's latest is the IXP2300 line of network processors, which in a sense replaces the IXP1200, Intel's original network processor. The 1200 is still shipping, but Intel feels it's showing its age.

"The 1200 is in full production on many designs, but we're not encouraging new designs on the 1200," says Terry West, the manager in charge of Intel's entry-level network processors. "We're migrating customers to the 2400 and the 23xx."

The 2300 line continues Intel's latest fashion of including an XScale general-purpose microprocessor on its network processors, allowing the devices to do more than just forward packets. "If you tried to do, for instance, 3G protocols, it wouldn't be sufficient" without the XScale, West says.

Among the markets Intel is targeting with the 2300 are 3G basestations -- as if you couldn't tell -- where the demand for throughput is increasing rapidly, West says.

Xelerated, meanwhile, has revamped its X11 processor. The new version of the chip adds two more 10-Gbit/s Ethernet interfaces, for a total of four, and also packs 24 media access controllers (MACs) for Fast Ethernet or Gigabit Ethernet.

"The way we had built it before, it was really interface-limited," Lidington says. That is, the original X11 included Sonet interfaces, too; by removing those in the new chip, Xelerated made more room for Ethernet interfaces, allowing OEMs to flood the chip with Ethernet traffic.

Xelerated started life going after raw speed, boasting the ability to build a multiprotocol 40-Gbit/s network processor. Starting last year, the company has shifted gears to concentrate on Ethernet, although it's still focusing on 10-Gbit/s interfaces.

The new part renders the original X11 obsolete -- Xelerated wrestled over whether to create a new name for the chip, says VP of marketing Gary Lidington -- and it also erases a need for the X10q-e, a low-end Ethernet chip that Xelerated rolled out early last year (see NPU Vendors Chase Ethernet). The reason the X11 can absorb the low-end chip's work is because of all those integrated MACs, which save money and board space for OEMs, Lidington says.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

Need to know more about the latest developments in next-gen Sonet? Come to Light Reading's The Future of Sonet roadshow in Boston on November 16 and Atlanta on November 18. Attendance is free for service providers.

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