Comms chips

NPU Vendors Chase Ethernet

LAS VEGAS -- NetWorld+Interop -- Network processor vendors aren't blind to the fact that Ethernet is a hotter market than Sonet these days, so it's not surprising to see devices change from "10-Gig" to "10-Gig Ethernet" in their marketing.

Xelerated AB veered in that direction with an announcement today, noting that it has changed its product plans to specifically address Ethernet in corporate backbones. Meanwhile, Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC) (Nasdaq: AMCC) brought out its second set of Ethernet devices. Both companies made their announcements today at the Networld+Interop trade show.

Xelerated's chips have always supported Ethernet, but the focus on enterprise networks means a shift in business plan. Like most network processor startups, the company was founded on the premise that Sonet would be its primary market, meaning it could command Sonet-like prices for its chips. Ethernet is a different animal, however, having evolved in the lower-cost habitat of enterprise networks.

But the shift was necessary, because OEMs have turned their attention to the cost-sensitive Ethernet market. "That's what we have been going over for the last six months in our customer engagements," says Johan Börje, Xelerated CEO. "It's a distinct change in emphasis in our portfolio, from being based on Sonet to being based on Ethernet."

Originally, Xelerated planned three versions of its network processors, targeting 10-, 20-, and 40-Gbit/s speeds with one-, two-, and four-port chips, respectively (see Xelerated Is First to 40-Gig). The first two are being phased out in favor of a new trio: 40-Gbit/s parts (four ports of 10-Gbit/s), designed for Ethernet, Sonet, or an Ethernet-Sonet mix.

From an enterprise point of view, the star of the trio is the X10q-e, the Ethernet chip for enterprise backbone networks. It runs at a slower clock speed than Xelerated's Sonet-minded chips, making it lower in power consumption and also cheaper, since the design is less sophisticated. The chip costs $490, compared with $1,300 for Xelerated's all-Sonet chip, and uses just 6.5W, compared with 10W or more for the other two Xelerated chips.

The other two Xelerated chips announced today -- the X10q-m and X10q-w -- use a higher clock speed. The X10q-w targets Sonet applications, while the X10q-m is for hybrid Sonet/Ethernet processing.

Ethernet does equate to lower margins, Börje admits, but he stresses that the X10q-e isn't a loss leader. "On all these chips, we can still maintain good margins," he says.

The Sonet market is far from dead, Börje says. Like most network processor vendors, Xelerated is finding customers interested in OC48 applications rather than the OC192 environments for which the chips were designed. By using the chips in a slower network, OEMs find they have the headroom to tack on more features.

The X10q-m and X10q-w cost $690 and $1,300, respectively. All three Xelerated chips are sampling now and are ready for volume production, Börje says.

AMCC, meanwhile, is expanding the line of network processors that it targets at Ethernet VPNs. The new nP3450 and 3454 are sequels to the nP3400 and 3404 chips announced in 2001.

The new chips use processor cores from the nP7510, one of AMCC's high-end, Sonet-minded network processors. The faster cores give the nP3450 and 3454 extra processing power to handle more traffic or pile on more features.

The 3450 sports 24 ports of Fast Ethernet, while the 3454 uses two ports of Gigabit Ethernet. Both chips use two ports of Gigabit Ethernet for uplinks. (The 3400/3404 use the same port permutations.)

AMCC's new chips are due to begin sampling in the third quarter of this year, with volume production slated for the fourth quarter. The company did not disclose pricing.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

wass 12/5/2012 | 12:09:17 AM
re: NPU Vendors Chase Ethernet The problem with SONET silicon vendors is that the cost is still too high. Most OEMs have their own SONET chips that are much less expensive than "off the shelf." Vendors using off the shelf cannot compete with the big boys; therefore, they are driven eventually to build their own ASICs. Not to say that you can't find some applications that work well with the off the shelf, but they are limited.

Ethernet, on the other hand, has traditionally been more attractive as an off the shelf solution. It will be interesting to see what happens to the cost of Ethernet as Ethernet become more "service provider" class in the future.
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