IBM, Intel vie for net processor biz

IBM last week entered the budding network processor market in a move that will take Big Blue into direct competition with Intel.

IBM will target makers of network gear and telecomms equipment with its IBM Network Processor and Packet Routing switch.

Intel last week also announced the first product in its network processor family, the IXP 1200.

Network processors aim to separate the network device function from the underlying transport engine. Instead of designing custom Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASIC) for each switch, router or WAN access device, vendors will soon be able to choose a generic microprocessor for network duties and then write application software that tells the device what to do.

Network processors will speed and simplify network equipment design to let start-ups jump into markets with less capital and allow established vendors to bring products to market faster. The processors will also let network managers eventually design upgrades to their own devices. The revenue for the network processor market will grow from more than $US28 billion last year to more than $90 billion by 2005, according to International Business Strategies of San Jose.

IBM and Intel join a host of other companies already doing business in the communications and network processor marketplace.

IBM has a fair chance in this market, especially against Intel, analysts say. IBM announced that it will partner with one of the start-ups in this arena, C-Port, to develop an open set of APIs, rules that will let vendors and users add functionality and enhancements to the processors.

"IBM has worked out an arrangement with C-Port to establish APIs so all chips can work together," says Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects in Washington, DC. "This will make life simple for everybody."

Intel is stuck with a more proprietary network processor strategy, Dzubeck says. The company hasn't issued any APIs, apparently content to keep the development of code between the processor and the ASIC to itself.

IBM is also an old hand at making components and doesn't need to rely on acquiring technology. Over the years, it has developed strong component divisions for equipment it manufactures.

Intel, which has been on a buying spree this year, is known for acquiring needed technologies. This year, it bought Softcom Microsystems and Level One Communications, and followed those purchases with the StrongArm chip, on which the IXP 1200 is based. The chip vendor is essentially re-entering a market it abandoned two years ago. "When Intel abandoned the 960, it left a lot of hardware vendors hanging and lost a lot of friends in the industry," Dzubeck says.

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