Chip Makers Shoring Up their Networking Positions

Highly programmable and software defined networks are forcing a rapid evolution of the networking chip.

By Arthur Cole | Posted Jun 17, 2016
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The enterprise network is due for a radical makeover both in form and function. This is causing a shake-up in the processor industry as vendors look to position themselves for the new reality.

In terms of speed, flexibility, programmability and integration into modular hardware, the networking chip has a lot riding on it, and since it forms the basic hardware layer for emerging software-defined architectures, the enterprise is likely to weigh this purchase decision much more heavily than it weighs practically everything else.

This is not only leading to accelerated development among legacy networking vendors, but is drawing newcomers to the field as well. The latest is Barefoot Networks, which recently came out of stealth with a new programmable switch that is said to double the speed of today’s fastest devices to hit 6.5 terabits per second. The company bills the switch as not just programmable, but user-programmable, allowing system vendors, network owners and even software developers to determine exactly how packets are processed using the open source, SDN-friendly P4 programming language. Early adopters have already used the devices to replace load balancers, firewalls and other devices with code.

At the same time, Mellanox is upping its programmable expertise with the new BlueField series of devices derived from technology that originated with Tilera before it was bought out by Israel’s EZchip, which Mellanox then purchased for $811 million earlier this year. Bluefield is a multicore SoC that combines Mellanox’s ConnectX acceleration technology with Tilera’s “tile-based” style of multiprocessor design. The idea is to create repeating, homogeneous arrays of processor, cache and interconnect to pack more cores onto a die, in this case ARM A72 cores. EZChip had been working on a 100-core device in a 10x10 array, according to HPCWire’s Tiffany Trader, although it appears that Mellanox will start out with a 4x4 design and then release larger or smaller devices as needed.

Outside of the programmable sphere, action is heating up among start-ups and their legacy peers as well. New to the field is Innovium, which recently wrapped up a lawsuit with Broadcom related to the departure of several of its founders from Broadcom’s Ethernet switching business. The company is now flush with about $50 million in venture capital and is working up its own Ethernet solutions with experienced leadership drawn from Cavium, Cisco, Dell, Ericsson and others. There is no word yet on exactly what the company has in mind, but it bears watching considering the star power it has acquired and the myriad ways in which advances in silicon can impact data network performance.

Meanwhile, Cavium has just purchased QLogic Corp. for a cool $1 billion, which should make it more of a player in the data center by strengthening its stance in server and storage adapter devices. Cavium execs say that despite a number of shared OEM customers, including Dell, HPE, Lenovo and IBM, there is less than 10 percent overlap in their product lines. This gives Cavium a shot at more than $2 billion in market opportunities across the enterprise, data center, telco and cloud industries. At the same time, it helps shore up Cavium’s arsenal in light of the recent Broadcom-Avago and Intel-Altera mergers.

With Big Data and the IoT ramping up, the size of emerging data loads is enough to warrant a major boost in network processing, but when you add the complexity of streaming media, censor-driven data, mobile workloads and the plethora of platforms, protocols and security requirements that reside in distributed architectures, it becomes clear that networks will have to become much more versatile as the decade unfolds.

The functionality required to meet these demands will be programmed in software, but the underlying capability can only come from more advanced processing.

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