Commentary: Uncertainty underlies the network-processor market

It's still up in the air whether network processing units can live up to their promise of flexibility and speed in the long run.

2 min read
By Joseph Byrne, Gartner Analyst

The principal advantage that network processing unit (NPU) suppliers purport to offer is the combination of the flexibility of a microprocessor with the speed of a custom logic circuit.

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The drawbacks of NPUs are that they may not offer sufficient performance for a particular application and that, in practice, it is difficult to develop software for them. At the same time, they may consume more silicon area than competing solutions, which directly affects their manufacturing cost.

Whether NPUs will live up to their promise in the long run is up in the air.

NPU technology is in its infancy, and it remains unclear which technological approaches are among the best. Moreover, the optimum approach may vary by application. Consequently, suppliers are taking a myriad of approaches to implementing NPUs.

With NPU adoption starting to take off in 2000, it is too early to tell how the various suppliers and technologies will fare. One trend that has emerged over the past few years is that the larger communications semiconductor suppliers are attempting to offer customers portfolios of products that span the range of functions needed to implement a communications system.

From a technology standpoint, that approach makes sense because, over time, semiconductor products become increasingly integrated. Amassing a complete portfolio leads to a road map that includes such integrated products. From a business standpoint, a complete portfolio enables a supplier to present itself as a one-stop shop, reducing buyers' purchasing and product development efforts. At the same time, many suppliers are trying to conform to standards so that their products can be used in a "best of breed" solution assembled by customers.

The uncertainty surrounding NPU technology is leading to the formation of start-up companies that apply what they believe are the best approaches to achieve performance and flexibility. At the same time, the trend among larger companies toward offering complete solutions is providing another exit path for the start-ups: acquisition.

Consequently, start-up formation and acquisition will continue strongly. The ongoing challenge for the buyers, however, will be to integrate the acquired, autonomous, groups into a seamless whole while retaining crucial employees. Otherwise, what is supposed to be a one-stop shop will more closely resemble a half-vacant strip mall.

(For related commentary on where microprocessor technology is headed, see TechRepublic.com--free registration required.)

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