Network chips gear up for better security, services

The Network Processors Conference West (NPC West) this week will showcase an array of new processors as chip vendors aim to help turn the concepts of tighter security and appealing carrier services into realities.

Network processors include chips that prioritize packets moving through a network, encrypt them before they hop onto a network, direct them to different ports within a switch and perform other tasks. Like PC microprocessors, they are getting smaller, faster and less power-hungry, helping network equipment makers pack more ports and intelligence into their systems.

However, the recent dramatic slowdown in network building has seen makers of the chips shift their focus from faster to more sophisticated packet handling. New security demands and carriers' search for profitable premium services to offer may drive demand for the new chips, analysts said last week. For example, the new products could offer ways to provide multiple classes of performance that carriers can activate on demand for customers.

"The focus is on not just moving packets fast but on doing more things to the packets," including billing and firewall functions, said Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at The Linley Group, in Mountain View, California.

Among the chips being introduced next week are a new generation of network processors from Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC) designed to allow a single port to offer multiple types of services at the cost of a dedicated-service system. Also coming are six new security chips from Hifn Inc. and a hardware search engine for packet classification and forwarding from startup HyWire Ltd.

Many recent startups that in the past were only promising products now are hitting the market with their chips, and those introductions are likely to continue over the next year, said John Metz, a network chip analyst at Metz International Ltd., in Harvard, Massachusetts.

"In the network processor space, a year ago, a lot of it was slideware. Now you can buy samples ... from almost all these guys," Metz said.

Starting about this time next year, system vendors will start using those chips to develop new products that should become available to carriers and enterprises in late 2004. It's likely those will hit the market just as spending on networks begins to recover, he added.

At the conference this week, AMCC will preview its fifth generation of processors for network devices, in which it will combine typical NPU (network processing unit) functions such as packet classification and modification with traffic management, which it now does in two chips outside the NPU.

Putting traffic management functions, such as packet queueing and scheduling, on the NPU will give system makers more ways to control those functions while maintaining the high performance of hardware processing, said Robin Melnick, director of marketing for AMCC's switching and network processing group. The new generation of chips is AMCC's first made with a 0.13-micron manufacturing process, which will allow the company to pack more transistors on a chip than the current 0.18-micron process.

The new generation of NPUs also will include exception processing for packets that need special treatment, such as inspection into their content to determine the right level of priority. This typically has been done in a CPU (central processing unit) of the switch or router. The AMCC chips will be able to give standard treatment to other packets while also doing special processing on the exceptional traffic, all at full speed, Melnick said.

AMCC aims to help network system makers build new interface modules that can handle many types of services, all for the price of modules that are limited to one type. The chips will be able to handle ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) cells as well as IP packets and other types of traffic, all in hardware, he said.

At the conference, the company will show off an unnamed processor using the new architecture that is designed to handle 5G bps (bits per second) of traffic. Later products in the new generation will offer 10G bps performance. The company began shipping its first 10G bps processor in sample quantities in March. The market, meanwhile, has shifted toward lower speed products, such as chips for systems that provide customers' connections at the edge of a network. Interest in 40G bps chips, which were to be the critical next generation in chips, also has waned, industry observers say.

"There's clearly not as much demand for (10G bps chips) as we would like," Melnick said.

The increased processing power of new networking chips lets them look more closely at packets and handle them in a greater variety of ways, Metz said.

"Without slowing it down, you can actually inspect an entire packet at OC-48 (2.5G bps) speeds," Metz said.

Security is a major application for this "deep packet inspection," which can help protect companies from denial-of-service attacks and secure consumers' financial information when they are shopping online, he said. Deep packet inspection may be required to secure corporate networks with the advent of Web services, in which many different kinds of packets may enter the network as Web traffic. Router giant Cisco Systems Inc. said earlier this year it was grappling with this issue.

Intel last week introduced a network processor, the IXP2850, that includes encryption and data integrity features. It is designed to help routers and switches handle the requirements of virtual private networks and storage area networks.

AMCC will be just one of several companies introducing or showing off new products at NPC West. Among them will be the following:

-- HyWire will unveil its first product, a search engine for routers and switches that the company says can perform 250 million [M] forwarding or classification lookups per second. It also features low power consumption, which reduces electricity costs and the need for cooling capacity, according to the Netanya, Israel-based startup.

-- Intel Corp. and Vitesse Semiconductor Corp. on Tuesday will announce collaboration to produce optimized combinations of Intel Corp.'s IXP line of NPUs and Vitesse switch fabric chips, which direct traffic among different ports on a switch or router. Embedded hardware and software vendor Radisys Corp. also will introduce products to support IXP chips.

-- Modelware, a Red Bank, New Jersey, provider of network chip designs, will announce the availability of two products designed to help component makers comply with emerging standard interfaces. The PluriBus NPSI Foundation core complies with Network Processing Forum and Optical Internetworking Forum standards for interfaces to network processors, switch fabrics and framers. Also newly available is a bridge between the Common Switch Interface Specification and the Network Processing Forum's Streaming Interface specification.

NPC West will run Tuesday through Thursday in San Jose, California. More information is at

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