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Chipmaker Marvell delves into switch design

Posted: 16 Jan 2003 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:gigabit Ethernet? marvell? switching gear? time to market? original device manufacturer?

Chipmaker Marvell is determined to see GbE as a standard desktop feature within 12 months that the company is designing the switching gear itself.

Though Marvell does not intend to market the switches to end users, it hopes to sell completed hardware and software designs to its own silicon customers as a way to whittle their development time down to four months. "It becomes a matter of just putting the customer's label on the box," said Michael McDonald, director of marketing for the switching products group at Marvell.

The design kits go well beyond standard reference designs and companies that sign on are expected to pay fees that start in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. These include an up-front licensing fee, maintenance fees and royalties - plus purchase orders for Marvell-made silicon. Moreover, aside from tweaking the GUI a bit, designers will not be able to modify the final design.

Some gear makers could perceive these ready-made solutions as undermining their own development efforts while aiding competitors. But Marvell thinks its customers are not always interested in having unique designs these days; what matters more is giving them a means to ship switches before their competitors do.

"The issue in the short term is not differentiation. The issue is when the market takes off, the box needs to be ready," McDonald said.

At the same time, Marvell's customers - big and small - are finding themselves short of money and engineers. This makes it harder to meet compressed product development cycles, giving Marvell more reason to fill in the void. GbE is a market that holds much promise for growth. However, fierce competition means equipment makers no longer have 16 months to develop their switches, McDonald said.

The production kit includes the switch silicon and related hardware as well as software user interfaces. There are three kits available: a 24-port GbE switch for the LAN market; a 24-port GbE switch for wiring closets and backbones; and a 5-blade or a 7-blade chassis switch built for high reliability. The silicon is already in production.

As part of the licensing contract, Marvell said it would validate the systems for all operating modes, furnish the documentation, and train a customer's support staff to field calls from users. The initial licensing fee will be set at one-third the cost of developing the system from scratch, which can range from $750,000 to several millions of dollars. Marvell will also charge royalties based on the number of boxes sold as well as an annual maintenance fee, said Barry Gray, Marvell's product marketing director.

Marvell's move to license a full-fledged switch solution may be ambitious, but it is not the only chipmaker seeking to deliver more pieces of the overall design. LSI Logic Corp., for one, has also announced a new Ethernet switch-fabric chip along with all the necessary software and a board design kit. McDonald thinks the plan to license full-fledged switch designs is new, however. "Marvell's an aggressive company," he said.

Marvell has been delving deeper into system development since it started providing reference designs four years ago. For example, it has worked with a Taiwanese original device manufacturer to design a switch product for Dell Computer. Gray said the products were shipping 70 days after development started.

Unlike reference designs, Marvell's design kits are not just a conduit for selling more switch chips but a way to augment its sales revenue through royalty payments. "We don't plan to make a lot of money on the [non-recurring engineering charges]. On the licensing fee, we want to make sure we are not losing money on the deal. The royalties and sales of silicon are where the revenue comes from," Gray said.

So far, about 10 percent to 15 percent of the more than 50 customers now buying Marvell's GbE chips have signed up for the design kits, most of them Taiwanese ODMs. For others, it will take more convincing, but the company is betting that the current economic climate will bring more on board. "Everyone's laying off people and at the same time trying to get their boxes out the door," McDonald said.

"A lot of the big customers are struggling with resources as much as the little guys trying to compete with them," he added.

- Anthony Cataldo

EE Times

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