Comms chips

Raza's Triple-Threat Revealed

Engineer turned venture investor Atiq Raza is back in the microprocessor spotlight, as this week he takes the wraps off his closely guarded Raza Microelectronics Inc.

RMI is an amalgamation of startups funded by Raza Foundries, now called Foundries Holdings Inc. Raza had begun folding the intellectual property of startups such as Sandcraft and Transpera Networks into RMI three years ago, although he denied this when Light Reading asked him about it in 2003 (see Headcount: Give Me Liberty and Raza Goes Micro).

The result is one of the more ambitious chip startups on the scene, as RMI has not one but three products in the offering. Not three chips belonging to one family, mind you, but three entirely different semiconductors. Two were disclosed today, and one of those, the XLR, is the subject of a grease-under-the-fingernails presentation at the Spring Processor Forum tomorrow.

None of the chips is in volume production yet, but one, called Orion, was demonstrated in private at last year's Supercomm, and the XLR was completed in November. RMI claims to be drumming up customer interest for all three. "We are shipping some products to customers for revenue," says Jim Johnston, RMI vice president of marketing.

RMI's patchwork nature explains why the company carries 150 employees, compared with other chip startups carrying 50 or even 20 people.

"They kind of formed this company by smashing three startups together," says Linley Gwennap, principal analyst of The Linley Group. "They're all good products, but they form a mishmash rather than a single unified strategy."

Officials aren't saying how much money has gone into RMI. Raza didn't fund the company on his own, though -- other investors include Benchmark Capital and Warburg Pincus.

Atiq Raza started Raza Foundries in the late 90s, aiming to accelerate the startup process by seeding companies with experienced management, technical expertise, and even chip-design help. During the bubble, the process resulted in quick-flip successes with YuniNetworks, glommed by Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC) (Nasdaq: AMCC) for $240 million in 2000, and VxTel, acquired by Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) for $550 million in 2001 (see Intel Snatches VOIP Startup for $550M).

The strategy caved in when the bubble burst, though. Today, Foundry Holdings is an investor in just a few companies, including Lambda Optical Systems Corp., formerly called Firstwave (see Firstwave Given Second Wind).

Whatever Raza's track record as a VC, he's shown the chops to run a microprocessor company. Back when startups still dared to assault Intel's x86 franchise, he founded NexGen, a PC-microprocessor company that was considering an IPO but instead accepted an acquisition offer from Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD) in 1996. NexGen's chip was the basis for AMD's K6, which enjoyed some success battling Intel's Pentium line.

Raza's celebrity still holds sway in the microprocessor world. "People have been eagerly awaiting what would come out of this new Raza company," Gwennap says.

RMI's products happen to be molded for networking applications, but they're microprocessors at heart:
  • Orion is a combination network processor, traffic manager, and Sonet/SDH processor targeting multiservice provisioning platforms (MSPPs) and customer-premises pizza boxes alike. Its job is to efficiently pack traffic into Sonet pipes.
  • The XLR is a sort of superprocessor that combines a normal microprocessor -- it's based on the MIPS architecture, a common starting point for high-end processors -- with the packet-handling capabilities of a network processor. XLR's mission is more widespread than Orion's, as it can be the brains of just about any type of networking box: firewalls, Layers 4-7 switches, or storage virtualization equipment, to name a few.
  • A third chip, descended from Sandcraft's processor technology, targets the digital imaging market. The chip is shipping but isn't being announced yet, Johnston says.
The XLR is the chip being detailed at the Spring Processor Forum. Gwennap sees similarities between it and the Octeon chip from Cavium Networks Inc., which likewise packs application-aware processing capabilities but is more focused on security applications (see Niche Chip Players Move Up the Stack). RMI appears to be ahead of Cavium in terms of shipping its device, however.

XLR would also appear to compete with the microprocessor offerings of AMCC and PMC-Sierra Inc. (Nasdaq: PMCS), both of which own general-purpose processor technology as well as networking know-how. Another possible competitor is Hifn Inc. (Nasdaq: HIFN), a Cavium rival that answered Octeon with a chip based on IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) technology (see Hifn Debuts 'Antero' Security Processor).

The XLR, which packs multiple processing units on a chip, is "good for applications where there's a lot of work to do on each packet," Gwennap says. In particular, the chip's use of the familiar MIPS template gives it advantages over many network processors.

"For simple packet processing, the existing network processors are still pretty good solutions. But because of their proprietary architectures, they're difficult to program, so they're less well suited for anything very complicated," Gwennap says. — Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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