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Access processor seen eclipsing NPU

Posted: 01 Nov 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:network processor? traffic manager? voip processor? broadband access? linley group?

A combination of aggregation network processors, traffic managers and VoIP processors serving broadband access may eventually eclipse the market for network processors in the transport core, a new study from the Linley Group suggests "A Guide to Access Processors," by Sanjay Iyer and Jag Bolaria, points to a fragmented market that may provide some surprising leaders as it consolidates in the next two years.

The aggregation of communication channels has been a task traditionally led by the Quicc and PowerQuicc controller families from Freescale Semiconductor Inc., though Iyer predicted a more strict delineation between control- and data-plane tasks in the future. Players listed as leaders in the data-plane side of the network-processing unit group Iyer calls "access NPUs" include Conexant Systems, Freescale, Infineon and Wintegra, with the latter startup cited specifically for its concentration of efficient processing of lower-speed channels.

"Wintegra is best in the data plane with its capability for multithreading, but it has a somewhat wimpy control engine," Iyer said. "Marrying a Freescale PowerQuicc and a Wintegra WinPath may represent the best of both worlds."

Aggregation and access processors are often cited for handling the legacy traffic of time-division multiplexed (TDM) communication channels, though many architectures were initiated in the era of ATM services. In contrast to market analysts who claim that ATM has died out faster than TDM, Iyer said that ATM's role in the backbone is still significant, particularly in cellular base stations and switches. Consequently, a processor's role in handling ATM AAL-2 services remains important, Iyer said.

The second realm critical for access is traffic management, where standalone chips prioritize and aggregate different types of traffic. Some of the original traffic-management architectures from companies such as ZettaCom and Acorn Networks were designed for the broadband core, but the new Linley Group study lists the important players in the access traffic-management market as Agere Systems, Azanda Network Devices, Mindspeed Technologies and Vitesse Semiconductor.

Iyer said that Vitesse Semiconductor Corp. has halted development of new traffic-management chips and that Azanda must face the market acceptance struggles common to any startup. Agere and Mindspeed may be best-positioned to combine existing expertise in VoIP with traffic-management architectures, he said.

The final category in access processors and voice-over-packet combines elements of DSP and packet-processor design. The study lists the high-density VoIP leaders as Texas Instruments, Audiocodes (which uses TI silicon with proprietary firmware), Broadcom, Centillium Communications, Freescale, Mindspeed and Octasic.

In part because of the hype and high hopes for VoIP, Iyer said, many startups tried to make a mark but went out of business or were acquired before they could establish their architectures. Broadcom Corp., for example, acquired silicon SPICE, but its architecture for VoIP is only partly based on anything acquired from Silicon SPICE. Octasic Inc. is one of the most innovative of the remaining startups, electing to bypass voice compression altogether and concentrate on low-bit-rate pulse-code modulation processing, but the VoIP market still faces more consolidation.

Iyer expects more integration of access NPU, VoIP and traffic-management elements at the device level, which may lead to more corporate consolidation. But the current fragmentation of the market should serve as a warning for newcomers like Intel Corp., which seeks to enter access through its own designs and those acquired from Basis Communications Inc.

"If the new players in this space, even large integrated players like Intel, do not design their products for the low-cost Asian ODM, they will not be successful," Iyer said. "This market will be subject to price pressures to an even greater extent than core transport NPUs."

- Loring Wirbel

EE Times

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