IC suppliers holding out hope for significant growth in the agonizing but tantalizing network processor (NPU) market are pursuing a range of strategies as they await a rebound in the communications sector.
IBM Microelectronics last week confirmed that it will switch its NPU portfolio to a PowerPC-based architecture, while Intel Corp. expanded its NPU line with the addition of three low-end devices aimed at consumer-level equipment.
Additionally, the Network Processing Forum today is expected to release benchmarking specifications that the industry group believes will allow potential NPU customers to more effectively evaluate vendor offerings.
IBM said it will no longer make NPUs using its proprietary PowerNP architecture, and will instead develop chips based on the well-established PowerPC. IBM said the switch will allow it to build from the investments the company has made in the PowerPC design while offering customers a familiar and mor e established processor line.
"We think this is an architecture that potentially more customers can take advantage of," said Dave Olechovsky, PowerPC marketing director at IBM in Raleigh, N.C.
"There's a great base of tools already in the market to support PowerPC, and given current conditions in the market we believe this is the time to make the switch," he said.
Olechovsky acknowledged that the architectural change could create the potential for customer defections, but said IBM is working on implementations that will allow users to port applications running on the PowerNP to the PowerPC. The company also will continue to support customers that are using PowerNP devices.
IBM ranks second in revenue and third in total NPU shipments, according to The Linley Group, Mountain View, Calif., but the overall market for the processors has been languishing. Total revenue amounted to only $65 million last year, a far cry from the hundreds of millions of dollars that IC suppliers still believe is p ossible.
Natural inclination Linley Gwennap, an analyst at The Linley Group, said that despite IBM's pledge to effect a smooth transition from the PowerNP to the PowerPC, customers naturally will be inclined to investigate rival products.
"I think that, like everybody else, IBM is looking at ways to cut their research and development costs," Gwennap said. "But for the company's existing customer base, this is going to be a problem. They are going to have to change over to a new architecture and some may decide, while they're changing, that they may as well look at what Intel, Motorola, AMCC, or someone else has to offer."
Olechovsky said NPU cores based on the PowerPC architecture will be available next year, with standard products coming in 2005.
The potential improvement in performance and overall cost structure will outweigh any inconvenience, he claimed. The PowerNP, for example, uses a series of processing engines and operates at speeds of roughly 130MHz, while NPUs based on the Powe rPC can potentially reach 1GHz or more.
Gwennap said the move has effectively "orphaned" the PowerNP family, but with the NPU market not expected to generate substantial revenue for another year or more, IBM may have the time needed to move its customer base over to the PowerPC.
"The market is small today compared to where everybody is hoping it will get," Gwennap said. "In retrospect, it would have been better for IBM to have made this decision a year earlier, but you certainly wouldn't want to wait another year or two."
Intel's contribution Intel, meanwhile, is expanding its NPU line into the low end of the market with the introduction of its IXA400 family. Sean Maloney, executive vice president and general manager for Intel's Communications Group in Santa Clara, Calif., said the chips, combined with the high-end IXA2000 family, leave the company with the broadest NPU portfolio of anyone in the market.
The company's three new NPUs, the IXP420, IXP421, and IXP422, target the small office /home office and small-to-medium-enterprise markets. The IXP422 is designed for residential gateways and wireless access points. The IXP421 enables voice-over-Internet Protocol applications, and the IXP420 is optimized for broadband access.
Maloney said the new NPUs will allow Intel to more readily address potential high-volume consumer markets.
"I don't doubt for a second that manufacturers are going into production on the new stuff," Maloney said. "The question is how quickly will their customers ask for it? The only way we can influence growth is to get good products out the door, and we now have a product line that goes from the edge to the core with a common set of tools."
Meanwhile, the National Processing Forum today is slated to release the Multiprotocol Label Switching benchmark, which the group said will establish for the first time a specification that enables customers to evaluate the performance of various NPUs.
"This is a tool that will allow systems vendors to start the pro cess of educated selection and objective comparison," said Misha Nossik, chairman of the National Processing Forum and director of NPU business development at IDT Corp. in Ottawa, Ontario.
"These are just the first baby steps of the network processing industry, but I believe it will be a huge step forward because we've had very little system-level benchmarking," Nossik said.