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Realtek, Via eye Gigabit Ethernet silicon

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

Keywords:gigabit ethernet? fast ethernet? 802.11a? 802.11b? 802.11g?

The market for Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) capability on desktop PCs looks ready for prime time--and a price war. Otherwise, it is unlikely that Realtek Semiconductor Corp. and Via Technologies Inc. would have chosen this juncture to throw their respective hats in the ring.

Taiwan's networking heavyweight Realtek is flicking the switch on volume runs of two single-chip GbE controllers, joining a crowd of suppliers that has been waiting for some time for the high-speed networking technology to chisel its way into the desktop PC market.

Via Networking, a subsidiary of Via Technologies, has been less forthcoming about its schedule, but a single-chip solution is expected to come out soon.

For good measure, Realtek will also put an 802.11b wireless gateway SoC into mass production, compounding the price competition in a market where margins are already under fearsome pressure. Realtek plans to follow up later in the year with an 802.11a/g combo chip, adding its voice to the chorus of companies singing a swan song for 802.11b as they hunt for better margins in the .11g marketplace.

Legions of other companies already have working silicon and SoC solutions, and OEMs such as Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard and IBM back deployment of the technology to the desktop. But the timing of the Realtek and Via chip introductions is telling because Taiwan firms are not so much technology developers as they are integrators and exploiters.

By making a cheaper chip, Realtek is looking to "accelerate and popularize gigabit applications, " said Geoffrey Tseng, Ethernet product manager at the company.

Not a bad strategy, since industry players have often complained that the high cost of GbE silicon is a major hurdle to acceptance, even in the enterprise market. Indeed, to succeed, the market might need an old-fashioned price war, and a Taiwan company armed with a GbE SoC just might be the catalyst.

One nagging question is whether the desktop, especially the consumer PC, really needs GbE. But the answer is irrelevant, said Steve Rago, a networking analyst with research house iSuppli Corp. "It's just like asking, 'Who needs a 3GHz Pentium?' Very few people do, but they go out and buy one anyway because it's the hottest thing out there, " Rago said. "GbE on the desktop is another case where I don't think it will be need-driven" as much as driven by cost and hype.

Rago cited a price differential between Fast Ethernet and GbE on a PC of just a few dollars, from about $3 for 10Mbps/100Mbps capability to $5 for 1, 000Mbps. As the price gap narrows further, it would be foolish for IT managers to pass on GbE, if only to future-proof their machines, he said.

Estimates from iSuppli are that shipments of GbE ports in switches and hubs will overtake those for Fast Ethernet ports in 2005, coming in at 72 million, vs. 71 million for Fast Ethernet. The biggest gains will take place over the next year, with shipments of GbE switches and hubs tripling, from 13 million to 38 million ports. That means many more millions of single ports will have to ship for PCs and notebooks.

With a PC replacement cycle due any year now, Taiwan vendors will be looking to stake out a share of the corporate market.

Realtek claims to be the first Asian vendor to integrate a gigabit media-access controller and a homegrown gigabit physical-layer transceiver into a single chip. To trim costs further, the company has also developed its own software instead of farming it out to a third party. The software supports Windows, Linux, Unix, Novell and the Mac OS.

- Mike Clendenin

EE Times

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