Networking processor specialist EZchip is embarking on a new high-capacity network processor strategy in an effort to capitalize on market demand for next-generation servers to support NFV rollouts.
The company is well known for its Ethernet chips that are used by network equipment vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR) and ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763).
Now it believes it can develop a new line of business by developing high-end multicore network processors designed to cope with the very high workloads that NFV is going to place on servers and white box switches. (See Think Outside the White Box.)
"NFV is real," said EZchip Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: EZCH)'s CEO Eli Fruchter during a recent conversation with Light Reading. "There have been other buzzwords over the years that have come and gone but NFV makes sense and it will become a reality -- but it will take time."
Fruchter is hoping his company's new product, the TILE-Mx, will hit the market just as NFV deployments create demand for high-performance servers, appliances and white box switches. The new processor will be available for sampling in the second half of 2016, more than a year away. "We need to announce our plans in advance so we can secure design wins with our customers," explains the CEO.
The multicore processor, which is being developed with 100 ARM Ltd. 64-bit CPU cores in a single chip, is aimed at all types of networking vendors and can be used to support all manner of applications, such as firewalls, load balancing, "anything to do with networking," says the CEO. The key aim is to have the TILE-Mx used in servers that support SDN and NFV rollouts, which will require very high processing capacity. (See SDN/NFV Pushes the Boundaries for Multicore Processors.)
"We believe we can offer ten-times faster processing" than is possible using standard (x86) server platforms, says the CEO.
The big question for EZchip, and its main rivals Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) and Cavium Inc. (Nasdaq: CAVM), is: How will the server strategies of the major network operators and data center operators play out? "There will be some that will want to do everything with Intel servers but others that will want to use something different. Companies will base their decisions to meet different needs," believes Fruchter.
"I believe NFV servers will simply do networking a lot better. We are doing 100 cores on the chip to offer very high capacity. This is a different architecture to other companies -- this is about payload networking. We are not going into the general server market, like others are doing. That market requires a smaller number of general-purpose cores, but this is not what we are doing," he explains.
But does this mean the new chip will be very expensive? "Yes, but no more expensive than any other multicore processor with an equivalent performance … ours has the acceleration capabilities but without any additional cost."
Those acceleration capabilities come from EZchip's existing Ethernet product line, while the multicore network processor design comes from Tilera, which EZchip acquired in 2014 for $130 million. (See EZchip Strikes $130M Deal to Buy Tilera.)
Tilera had developed two generations of its own CPUs in-house, notes Fruchter. "Now, though, customers want don't want multicores based on proprietary CPUs -- they want ARM, essentially, because of the development environment and because they can migrate existing applications onto the ARM cores."
EZchip will be up against Broadcom and Cavium, but Fruchter believes those companies are chasing the "general multicore market … we are specializing on the networking side of things and NFV in particular. This is the first generation of multicore processors for NFV. We have come from a networking background and so we are focused on delivering what the industry will need for NFV -- powerful processors and a standard software environment that they can build applications on. Proprietary boxes are going away, but it will take time. There is a lot of NFV activity but it will be years before the market is significant," adds the CEO.
So is this a wise move for EZchip? It's certainly a significant one, says Heavy Reading contributing analyst Simon Stanley. "This is a huge change for EZchip because it had been developing its own cores and had an approach based around a low-power core. But now it's moving to an ARM core, using the bussing technology for core connectivity it gained from Tilera and adding in the accelerator and traffic manager from its existing network processor line, which is a cool idea -- the best of both worlds."
But EZchip is not alone in its ambitions. "Freescale is very much aimed at the same market as EZchip and Advanced Micro Devices, Applied Micro Circuits and Broadcom have all been developing [products based on] ARM V8 cores. What EZchip is doing is sticking with its tile approach -- 25 groups of 4 cores -- using the ARM Cortex A-53, a less powerful core than others are building on, but EZchip is using a lot of them. The A-53 was designed as a low-power core, so this is a different way of using it," notes Stanley.
The analyst believes the multicore processor approach is one that will be in demand. "There's certainly going to be a need for a lot of packet processing. Intel's view is that, for NFV, you just need standard [x86] processors and then virtualize the whole thing. But the question then is, how fast does it run and how much power does it need? I think there will be need for accelerators," says Stanley.
There's another way to meet the high performance needs of the NFV server market though, adds Stanley. "The other option is the approach being taken by Netronome -- its business is about accelerating x86 systems," he says.
— Ray Le Maistre, , Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading