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IBM juices network chip

The new PowerPRS 64Gu chip pumps data packets quickly through network switches, but it's all heart and no brains.

IBM next week will introduce a new chip that it hopes will become the heart of computer networks.

The PowerPRS 64Gu chip will be used in network switches, devices used to direct data on a computer network. The chip will act like a heart, pumping data packets quickly through the switches toward their destinations on the network, IBM representatives said.

Data packets, the most basic unit of network traffic, include both a small amount of data and routing instructions. Once the instructions have been read by a network processor, the packets are passed to a switch containing multiple chips like the PowerPRS 64Gu to be sent on their way. (Groups of two or more such chips are known as switch fabrics.)

The new chip offers a performance boost over its predecessor, the PowerPRS Q-64G, by allowing more ports, or data lines, to come into the switch simultaneously. It has also been tuned to move data to its new destination more quickly, IBM representatives said.

But unlike other networking chips that IBM sells, the PowerPRS 64Gu is all heart and no brains. The chip focuses only on moving data at high speed, allowing chips such as IBM's PowerNP network processor to handle the duty of inspecting packets to determine their destinations.

The chip simply "directs data as quickly as possible, without losing any...packets," said Gilles Garcia, strategic marketing manager for switches at IBM Microelectronics.

IBM will manufacture the chip for a wide range of customers that build switches for duty in the midrange of the market for cellular communications, large company networks and data centers that deliver video or voice on demand.

With the new chip, IBM aims to take advantage of trend in which companies that manufacture networking hardware have turned to off-the-shelf parts that use standard networking protocols to speed up development, instead of creating their own chips in-house. A similar trend has been at work in the PC market, where manufacturers largely use the same components to build their machines and compete mainly on price, design, service and support, among other things.

IBM will assist its customers, Garcia said, by including a reference design for the chip--that is, an example of how to use it inside a switch--and by offering a set of switch-design services that manufactures can buy separately. By using the chip, manufacturers can cut their switch development time by 10 to 15 months and focus their efforts on other features that help them differentiate their products from competitors, he said.

But IBM also faces a tough market for its networking chips: Competitors include Motorola and Intel, which also manufacture networking chips aimed at the same set of customers; and the networking market itself has been battered by the economy. IBM acknowledges that the networking market continues to be slow.

"We have not yet seen a rebound" on devices such as switches, Garcia said. "But we're seeing a lot of companies adopting switch fabric."

IBM says it will forge ahead with new chips in order to be competitive when a recovery does come. The chip, IBM said, can support a mix of Ethernet and fiber-optic networks running at either 2.5 gigabits per second or 10gbps, or both. For networks running at 2.5gbps and using either Gigabit Ethernet or the OC48c standard for fiber, the PowerPRS can accommodate up to 32 ports where network cables plug into a switch. It also can support up to eight ports when used with 10gbps networks using 10gbps Ethernet or OC192 fiber.

IBM also designed the PowerPRS 64Gu to consume a relatively small amount of power, about 13 watts, which allows it to be used inside more compact switches without any special cooling.

Big Blue has already begun producing the chip in small numbers and doling them out as samples to early customers. Wider availability of samples is scheduled for next month.

One of the first customers to use the new chip will be network equipment maker Worldwide Packets, IBM said.

The first products using the new PowerPRS 64Gu should come during the first half of next year, likely in the second quarter, Garcia said.