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Mixed-signal vendors to rise, comms report says

Posted: 23 Apr 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:motorola/freescale? integrated device technology? control-plane processor? communication processors? risc?

A new report on communication aggregation processors from The Linley Group argues that vendors with expertise in Ethernet switching, encryption or media-access control devices may be able to gain ground over those with base expertise in control-plane processors. The latter group includes Motorola/Freescale and Integrated Device Technology Inc.

Traditionally, architectural market analysts like The Linley Group have looked at data path network processors when focusing on communication processors. These are devices in the data plane that directly forward or act upon Internet Protocol packets. However, several processors from the likes of Motorola, IDT and Agere predated this breed of network processor, and offered a RISC-based control-plane processor in conjunction with logic that aggregated and multiplexed several communication channels.

Now, the Linley study claims, the control-plane market is growing through such general-purpose newcomers as Intel Corp.'s Basis Communications design team and Brecis Communications Inc., as well as by those that built a base of expertise in Layer 1 and 2 functions for a particular communication task. Such tasks can include wireless-LAN MAC processing, offered by Atheros, Conexant, Broadcom and Marvell; and encryption engines from AMD, Brecis, Broadcom and Motorola.

Principal analyst Linley Gwennap said that the companies with existing expertise in WLAN or Ethernet switching may be able to take over the mixed-function communication processor market from those leveraging a RISC control-plane expertise. The report covers such general-purpose control-plane designers as Brecis, Infineon, Intel, Motorola and Ubicom.

Sanjay Iyer, senior analyst at The Linley Group and co-author of the study, said that the boundaries of the dozen companies studied involved architectures that offered both a control-plane RISC processor and a packet engine of some type. Access devices of the type offered by Agere, Applied Micro Circuits and Wintegra were not included, because they are to be covered in another Linley report later this year. Vendors designing multilayer, standalone security processors, such as Cavium, Corrent and Hi/fn, are handled in a different product category.

"At the end of the day, it can be an arbitrary distinction, since we included control-plane RISC vendors who added security coprocessing," Iyer said. "And some of the wireless-LAN chip set vendors might not include themselves in such a listing, but we learned that many hackers in the access-point world were using the RISC cores on board an 802.11 chip set as general-purpose engines in a Linux environment."

At the same time, Iyer said, the digital subscriber line engines that melded strong DSP cores with RISC cores, offered by Analog Devices, Centillium and Texas Instruments, were not included because the OEM customer typically does not program the RISC cores for general-purpose duties.

For now, Motorola/Freescale maintains dominance in the communication-processor space arena because of the combined weight of architectures such as 68302, 68360, PowerQuicc and PowerQuicc II, the last two based on a PowerPC core. Iyer said that depending on the definition of what is considered a communication processor, Motorola maintains a market dominance of as much as 80 percent of the total available market. But the company could be challenged by the architectures that companies like Broadcom or Marvell designed for WLAN or Ethernet-switching markets.

"As integration moves further along and systems-on-a-chip get more complex, it gets tougher to categorize many of these architectures," Iyer said.

- Loring Wirbel

EE Times

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