PARK RIDGE, Ill. IBM and Wind River Systems Inc. have entered into a partnership that could help makers of network processors cut their product development times.
The partnership, announced last week, centers around IBM's PowerNP processor and Wind River's Tornado for Managed Switches software and is targeted at the growing market for software-programmable network processors. By teaming up, the two companies positioned themselves to provide the chips, tools and production-ready suite of code needed to bring those devices to market faster.
The IBM-Wind River partnership is the second silicon-vendor affiliation by Wind River within a week. The company also said that it is teaming with Motorola to develop embedded software for its PowerPC family of microprocessors. Similarly, IBM will market a suite of Linux-based software development tools for its PowerNP network processor, while Microsoft launched its Windows Embedded Strategic Alliance, w hich involves 14 of the world's biggest microprocessor vendors.
Industry analysts said that the recent spate of silicon-software partnerships reflects a market necessity, given the fast rate of change in the embedded spaces. "These software-hardware tie-ups are inevitable," said Fred Zieber, president of Pathfinder Research Inc. (San Jose, Calif.). "And if this follows the typical industry pattern, you'll see these partnerships evolve into a small number of competing groups."
However, the IBM-Wind River affiliation is the most significant in the network processing arena. The reason: IBM is already the top supplier of application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) to that market, and by allying itself with Wind River the biggest supplier of embedded software it carves out a stronger position in the separate area of software-programmable network processors.
Easier for users
The two companies said they will optimize Tornado for Managed Switches 2.0 software to run on t he PowerNP NP4GS3 network processor, making it easier for users to add their own proprietary software. By employing Tornado for Managed Switches, and by using a new tool set co-developed by the two companies, customers can differentiate their network products in software by building their applications atop Wind River's protocol layer.
"Because customers will have a fixed hardware platform, it will cost them less and take far less time to develop their products," said Steve Longoria, director of marketing for IBM's network technology (Boston). "Now, they'll only have to worry about the software environment."
In that respect, software-programmable network processors differ dramatically from ASICs, which require that users customize both the hardware and software designs. IBM executives said that their customers' network processor development times could therefore be cut to six to nine months. In contrast, ASICs typically take about 24 months to develop.
The move toward such software-programmable pr ocessors is expected to gain momentum in 2001 as other hardware vendors, including Intel and Motorola, also build on software partnerships.
Industry analysts said that from a customer perspective, shorter development times are the key to making such partnerships significant. "It's immensely important to be able to cut that development time, particularly when you've got so much technological change going on," Zieber said. "Each new generation of products is significantly different and improved, and if you go to market slowly, it's a big handicap."
IBM executives emphasized that the move toward such standard hardware architectures will not affect the company's commitment to ASICs. Many customers want to continue to employ ASICs, especially in more proprietary applications, Longoria said. He cited the example of Alcatel Inc. (San Jose, Calif.), which recently designed a system that uses a standard network processor for deep packet processing and data management, in conjunction with three ASICs that act as the proprietary switching engines.
Analysts said that its ability to make standard processors and ASICs gives IBM a strong position in the market, especially as users transition between the two technologies. "IBM has tremendous ASIC capability," Zieber said. "The big network and telecom companies will still need that. They can't expect to do it all with standard products."