The network processor, an increasingly popular class of chips, is charged with helping to identify and route data over a network. The chips will receive a boost later this year from IBM, which plans to offer new application-specific versions of its next-generation PowerNP network Processor, code-named Sanford, in 2002.
Makers of network infrastructure devices currently use the company's PowerNP 4GS3 chip and development tools to help save on costs and cut development times on new networking products, such as switches or routers.
Gartner analyst Joseph Byrne says network processors have the potential to yield large benefits for enterprises and consumers, but the market will likely see a lot of bloodshed.
IBM says that by using its off-the-shelf PowerNP chips and development tools, companies can shave six to 12 months off the development cycle for new products. At the same time, IBM says a company can focus engineering resources on areas deemed more critical to the success of the product than the network chip. Considering that corporate customers are building out their networks now, cutting development time is crucial.
Of course, it's not like Big Blue is the only company to figure this out. Competition comes from Intel's Intel Exchange Architecture as well as EZChip Technologies, Silicon Access Networks and Lucent Technologies' Agere Systems, among others.
A network processor works by interrogating a data packet--the bundle of binary data that represents the basic element of network communication--to determine where that packet should be routed, according to rules set by a network administrator, before the packet is sent on its way to a switch, which routes it. Those rules can be used to set priorities for certain kinds of data or individuals.
Because the network processor can be programmed, it can also be reprogrammed to handle new kinds of data or to handle existing data in different ways. A service provider could also make these changes after a network is up and running, without having to install new equipment. More importantly, a service provider could reprogram a network to support new features or services for customers.
"How it effects you and me as end users is in the new types of services" networks can be set up to offer, said Tim Ward, marketing manager for PowerNP at IBM Microelectronics in Raleigh, N.C. "So say BellSouth wanted to offer me VPN (Virtual Private Network) services between my house and my bank. They would be able to it."
The phone company could also use its network processor-equipped network to provide better speed and reliability for the VPN connection by programming Ward's VPN packets as high priority, he said. A VPN provides a secure, point-to-point network connection between one party and another. In the case of a bank, it would give a customer a secure Internet link to the bank's network.
Analysts say that although it's too early to speculate on market share, IBM is in a good spot with its network processor. Because of market conditions, most networking equipment makers are looking to outside companies for their network processors.
The next-generation wave
"Everybody's doing it. This is sort of like the next-generation wave," said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects, a firm that tracks the networking industry. "Differentiation (between products) in the future is going to be in services."
Aside from its role in networking equipment and network services, IBM is pushing PowerNP to take on several new roles, including network-attached storage and storage area networks, security and voice and data services. Network processors would allow standards bodies or individual networks' rules to be rewritten to improve performance.
By packaging a network processor with a coprocessor and some software, "I've got something that's tailored for a security application," Ward said.
It is also possible that network interface cards with network processors built in could replace the functions that some of today's server appliances perform, including TCP/IP processing, firewall duties or even VPN, IBM executives said.
IBM is also targeting residential gateways, devices that allow a number of PCs to share a single Internet connection. The company will make an announcement about a partnership in this market shortly, IBM executives said.
IBM's 10-gigabit PowerNP chip will sample later in the year. Products using it should be available by mid-2002, Ward said. The current PowerNP 4GS3 supports 2.5-gigabit data rates.
Additionally, IBM announced this week that the latest version of its PowerNP development environment, version 2.1, supports the Linux operating system. The company added Linux support to help developers, especially those at universities, create applications for use with network processors in an environment they are used to working in, IBM executives said.