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Intel taps 90nm process for integrated network processor

Posted: 25 Oct 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:intel? data plane processor? ixp 23xx? network processor? npu?

Intel Corp. is leveraging its 90nm process technology to roll out what one analyst said is the first integrated control and data plane processor. The IXP 23XX, aimed at a broad middle tier of communications access systems, will set another milestone by being the first network processor to hit prices below $100, fueling this still small but growing market sector.

Intel NPUs are the first to use a new 90nm Xscale core running at up to 1.2GHz and integrating 512KB L2 cache. Unlike most NPUs, this embedded control plane processor has a dedicated path to external DDR memory, separate from the memory path of the onboard data plane processors.

"This is the first time we have seen a full fledged CPU on board that's not just a management processor embedded on an NPU," said Bob Wheeler, senior analyst with The Linley Group. "For an application like a DSLAM line card, this part eliminates the need for a separate CPU, lowering costs and increasing board-level integration," Wheeler added.

The 90nm process also allowed Intel to pack two Gigabit Ethernet MACs on board, a feature that will help the part find design wins in data center appliances, Wheeler said. Ethernet MACs will become a standard feature on next-generation NPUs, he added. In addition, the Intel 23XX sports four micro-engines for data path processing and other custom blocks for traffic on lower speed interfaces.

Intel expects to roll out an external interface chip to link the device to Advanced Switching (AS), its PCI Express-based interconnect for communications systems. The company does not expect to support AS natively on its NPUs until 2006.

Silicon integration will remain a key success factor for NPUs. "There's a trend toward converged services where you can do a lot of things on a single processor such as firewalls, intrusion detection, encryption and content inspection. This is the next big step," said Wheeler.

The computer chip giant is leveraging 90nm process technology now used in most of its notebook CPUs and some of its newest desktop and server processors. "All our competitors are basically fabless companies that have to compete for foundry access to 90nm technology," said Frank Schapfel, a product line marketing manager in Intel's comms infrastructure group.

The 23XX is sampling now and will sell at prices ranging from $84 to $142, depending on frequency and number of micro-engines. Samsung's telecommunications division announced it will use the parts in wireless systems.

Staggering back to life

Although capital spending among telecommunications carriers is still sluggish, analysts said the small but growing NPU market is beginning to heat up thanks to design wins in a broad class of systems that span from the core to the edge of today's networks. For its part, Intel is said to be gaining market share on leaders in the sector such as AMCC.

About $60 million in NPUs were sold in the first half of this year, up from $85 million in all of 2003, according to figures released last week (Oct. 21) by the Linley Group. The market, defined as all Gigabit and faster data plane processors, is growing at 40 percent annually, the group estimated.

Intel shot up from 16 to 26 percent of the NPU market in the past year. AMCC, Freescale and IBM (which sold its NPU business to startup Hifn) saw shares decline by 8, 5 and 3 percent, respectively, according to the market watcher. "We are growing at 100 percent, basically doubling our revenues this year, and we expect they will double again next year," said Intel's Schapfel. However, "CapEx is still pretty flat and the tide is not moving all that much," he added.

Growth is coming from an expanding market for access systems such as DSL access multiplexers and wireless base stations, as well as a move to off-the-shelf parts and away from ASICs in many comms systems, said Schapfel.

NPUs have proven flexible enough to survive the downturn by handling a range of services including ATM, Frame Relay and Sonet, said Wheeler. Future growth will come from displacing ASICs in middle-tier performance markets such as access systems, he added. FPGAs have been catching on in low-volume markets and at the high-end ASICs will remain a viable option for sometime, Wheeler said.

- Rick Merritt

EE Times

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