IBM rolls out faster chips for switch fabrics

An IBM Corp. chipset introduced Monday for medium-sized carrier and enterprise data switches supports a standard interface to other switch components as well as offering higher performance, according to the company.

The IBM PowerPRS 64Gu packet routing processor can be used by switch manufacturers to build high-density midrange systems that also use chips from other vendors, according to Steve Longoria, director of marketing for networking technology at IBM. In addition, the 64Gu is much more powerful than IBM's last packet routing processor, so switch makers can support more interfaces at higher speeds with a single chip.

IBM Microelectronics, a division of Armonk, New York-based IBM, is one of several vendors building interface and switching chips for makers of network routers and switches. Traditionally, equipment makers designed and built those processors on their own. Being able to use "off-the-shelf" parts saves equipment makers money and helps them get new products to market faster, Longoria said. That means more advanced technology becomes available to enterprises and service providers at lower cost.

In a chassis-based network switch, the packet routing processor sits on a fabric card, separate from the interface blades where the physical ports are located. It takes in traffic from many interface blades and directs each packet to the correct outgoing port to send it on its way. In each interface blade, an ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit) or NPU (network processing unit) and supplementary chips inspect incoming packets and make decisions about routing, priority and other issues. The packet routing chip then sends the packets around the switch at high speed.

The 64Gu processor can be combined with two different switch fabric interface devices, the PowerPRS C48 and C192. These are integrated into the interface blade and take in traffic from the ASIC or NPU to send on to the 64Gu. The newly introduced C48 is designed for OC-48 interfaces, which have a capacity of 2.5G bps (bits per second), and the existing C192 is designed for OC-192 (10G bps) interfaces.

The 64Gu is optimized for use with interface boards that use IBM's NPUs, but IBM used the Network Processor Forum's (NPU's) C6 standard for the C48 and C192. That means switch makers could use chips from many other vendors, or their own ASICs, in their interface cards and still use IBM's switch fabric chip, Longoria said. IBM has proved interoperability between the 64Gu chip set and NPUs from Motorola Inc., Vitesse Semiconductor Corp. and Intel Corp., he said.

The 64Gu is designed for use in devices including metropolitan edge switches, enterprise backbone switches and mobile-carrier data switches. It can be used as the routing processor for traffic from as many as 8 OC-192 or 10-Gigabit Ethernet interfaces, or 32 OC-48 ports. The power and speed of the chip can mean fewer chips and wires for a given number of interfaces. The 64Gu consumes less power than earlier chips, which also lowers costs.

"You can move data more quickly with fewer chips and lower power," said Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at The Linley Group, in Mountain View, California. Power costs and real estate in network facilities are important issues for service providers, he said.

The C6 standard is a start, but by itself it is no guarantee of interoperability between a given interface chip and switch fabric, Gwennap, said. For example, vendors can build either a 32-bit or a 64-bit C6 interface. As a result, companies such as IBM that produce both are often in a better position to ease switch development, he said.

"Unless you're getting both from the same vendor, you're kind of on your own to make them work together," he said. "There is an advantage to (being able to) get both parts from the same vendor."

A new standard, called NPF Streaming Interface, gives less "wiggle room" but is still under development, Gwennap added.

The PowerPRS 64Gu will become available in sample quantities next month. IBM also offers an evaluation platform, a switch core reference design and reference software for product development.

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