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Comms chips

Onex Chip Sees Light of Day

Remember Onex, the startup that was going to change the world with silicon that could be used to build everything from ATM switches to IP routers to Sonet digital crossconnects? (See Onex to Offer 'God Chip'.)

Since being acquired by TranSwitch Corp. (Nasdaq: TXCC) in September 2001, Onex has been rather quiet, leading some to speculate that its product didn't work out quite as expected (see TranSwitch Harvests Startup). But an announcement today indicates that the startup's story is more one of success than failure, although there has been a slight shift in strategy.

Onex's original plan called for the company to condense all the functions of a line card onto a single programmable chip, called a "services processor," in addition to consolidating the elements of a switch fabric into a single chip. Both services processor and switch fabric were to be capable of processing or switching all types of traffic in their native formats.

The big idea was to allow carriers to migrate from one protocol to another as network requirements change, without having to change their hardware. There are caveats, of course -- silicon that tries to do everything runs the risk of doing nothing particularly well.

Nevertheless, the switch fabric appears to be working out along the lines of the original plan, according to Paul DeBeasi, VP of marketing, formerly for Onex and now for TranSwitch's metro/core products division. The product, called the OMNI switch element, or OMNI SE, is a one-chip chipset that can switch TDM circuits and route packets.

TranSwitch has been testing the OMNI SE in its labs since last December, and it is now sampling to customers, says DeBeasi. One customer is building a 2-Tbit/s switch with it, he claims.

When it comes to line cards, however, carriers aren't ready for a "one-size-fits-all" solution, it seems. As a result, the services processor has been put on the back burner. TranSwitch decided to develop a new product in the meantime, called the OMNI transport processor (OMNI TP), which will handle TDM traffic exclusively. This change of tack has set the schedule back by about a year overall.

The OMNI TP is part of a new range of highly integrated but specialized chips for metro and core line cards. These include the Ethermap Ethernet-over-Sonet mapper chips, which were introduced earlier this year (see TranSwitch Expands EOS Line); the new OMNI TP for pure TDM solutions, which will sample in Q4; and in due course the OMNI services processor, for packet and ATM-based traffic.

On paper it sounds like a good plan, but TranSwitch has a lot of catching up to do with the established chip makers that have been in the metro and core markets for much longer. And it desperately needs to stake its claim in this new market -- the company's revenues declined precipitously in 2001 and have hovered at the $4.5 million mark for the past four quarters (see TranSwitch Reports Q2, Lays Off). Whether it can succeed remains to be seen.

Ready for some more product details?

TranSwitch claims the OMNI SE is the only switch fabric that can switch circuits and route packets. It does this by having the ability to switch Sonet timeslots and read packet headers to find out routing information. "Other products do one or the other, but never both," says DeBeasi.

But while TranSwitch may have the first off-the-shelf silicon to offer native switching, systems that can do this already exist today -- the MetroDirector from Ciena Corp. (Nasdaq: CIEN) is one, and others are in development (see Siemens Cooks Up Multiservice Platform for example).

Ciena apparently uses two sets of separate cards to do native switching -- one set for packet traffic and one for TDM, while other systems vendors, including Seabridge Ltd., are developing ASICs to perform both functions.

If it lives up to its billing, TranSwitch's new chip could allow startups to catch up with the MetroDirector, and possibly gain an advantage. In fact, TranSwitch goes as far as claiming that its chips could be used to build a MetroDirector equivalent in a fraction of the chassis space.

The other interesting point about the OMNI SE is its scaleability. A single OMNI SE chip supports 12x12 ports at OC48 (2.5 Gbit/s), giving it a capacity of 30 Gbit/s. It contains on-board SerDes, eliminating the need for external chips to multiplex slower-speed channels up to OC48 -- a pretty standard feature in the latest switch fabrics. Ports can also be linked to support OC192 (10 Gbit/s) or OC768 (40 Gbit/s) traffic, the company claims.

With a maximum port count of 1,728 (4.3 Tbit/s), the OMNI SE appears to surpass other packet-based terabit fabrics from Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC) (Nasdaq: AMCC) and Agere Systems (NYSE: AGR) (see AMCC Raises Eyebrows). However, to achieve this maximum capacity would require a five-stage Clos architecture -- something that competitors reckon would be unfeasibly complicated, especially given the dual purpose nature of the fabric.

"I don't believe any customer will implement a five-stage architecture because of the number of devices, latency, backpressure, and a whole lot of other technical issues," says Krisha Mallampati, product manager for Agere's PI-40 switch fabric product family. Agere offers a 40-Gbit/s single-chip solution, the PI-40SAX, for building smaller switch fabrics. For larger fabrics, Agere reckons that a two-chip chipset with separate queuing device and crossbar chips is the best way to go.

Since it purports to switch both packets and circuits, the OMNI SE also competes, in theory, with TDM grooming fabrics from the likes of Velio Communications Inc. (see Velio Breaks Grooming Barrier). However, in practice, it's not in the same league. Velio's chip is 172x172 compared to TranSwitch's rather puny 12x12.

However, the OMNI SE may be attractive for TDM applications that require finer grooming -- the ability to rearrange the timeslots inside a Sonet frame. It offers grooming at the VT1.5 (1.544 Mbit/s) level in addition to the more usual STS1 (51.8 Mbit/s) grooming offered by Velio.

Pricing was not provided.

— Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading
http://www.lightreading.com Want to know more? The big cheeses of the optical networking industry will be discussing this very topic at Opticon 2002, Light Reading’s annual conference, being held in San Jose, California, August 19-22. Check it out at Opticon 2002.

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