SiberCore is the latest vendor to unveil an 18-Mbit ternary CAM (content addressable memory) -- double the density of what's generally available today.
Ternary CAMs, known as TCAMs, are historically the most popular type of search engine, being deployed both in systems built with original equipment manufacturers' (OEMs) ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits) and in systems built using off-the-shelf network processors.
The market for TCAMs is set to rise to $425 million by 2006, up from $70 million today, according to a recent report from CIBC World Markets, an investor in SiberCore. And although the market is fairly stagnant at the moment, there are a huge number of potential design wins up for grabs. When the industry starts to recover, it will be a good market to be in, says Graham Allan, SiberCore's director of marketing.
SiberCore's won't be the first 18-Mbit part to ship, however. NetLogic Microsystems Inc. claimed that honor earlier this year (see NetLogic Intros Search Engines). And by the time the SiberCore chip starts sampling in late 2002, others, including Cypress Semiconductor Corp. (NYSE: CY), are also likely to be shipping (see Cypress Unveils Search Engines).
All these vendors are taking advantage of the next jump in semiconductor process technology to improve the performance and cost of their products. SiberCore, like many of its competitors, is building its 18-Mbit chips with 0.15 micron technology for now, but it plans to move to a 0.13µ process as soon as the process is mature.
Although SiberCore isn't first, it may have an edge on the competition in terms of electrical power consumption. And the fact that it has named Fujitsu Network Communications Inc. (FNC) as a customer is also a big feather in its cap.
Power consumption is pretty high up on the list of the concerns of system vendors. In the past, their two loudest complaints about TCAMs were that they cost too much and consume too much power -- an attitude that is now out of date, contends Allan.
"The market was very immature when those conceptions were born," he says. "As volumes increased, we've gone from 256-kbit to 18-Mbit parts in the span of five years -- which equates to a tremendous price reduction."
Moving up a process technology generation is largely responsible for boosting performance, and slashing prices, but it's not the whole story. SiberCore has some other tricks up its sleeve that lower power consumption further.
"Our power consumption scales with the search rate," claims Allan. "Whereas our competition's scale with the clock rate." All SiberCore's search engines have a sleep mode that they can step into or out of in a single clock cycle. As a result, no power is consumed when the device is not actually doing a search.
Furthermore, the company claims that it has the lowest power consumption per Mbit of stored data, although it won't name the vendors it is making the comparison with.
Geoff Charubin, director of marketing for Cypress's datacom products division also points out that new types of search engine are being developed that will be intrinsically more power efficient than TCAMs. Earlier this year, Cypress bought Sahasra Networks, a developer of SRAM-based search engines, and it reckons this will become the search engine of choice for some, although not all, applications (see Sahasra Networks). Cypress also sells TCAM devices, from its acquisition of Lara Networks (see Cypress Goes Long on Line Cards).
For the technically-minded, here are some further details of SiberCore's SiberCAM Ultra-18M:
- It supports 66 million searches per second (msps) initially, and will support 100 msps in 2003, which is par for the course.
- It has "dynamic variable search width," meaning it can support multiple sizes of table entries in the same device simultaneously -- a feature that saves vendors money because they can use fewer devices. It supports 360-, 432-, and 576-bit table entries, which will allow it to handle IPv6 as it becomes more popular.
- It has a separate interface for table maintenance, allowing it to update the table without compromising on search speed.
- SiberCore doesn't yet offer seamless connections with the most popular off-the-shelf network processors, although it is developing a "glue" chip, called SiberNPA, which it will introduce later this year.