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IBM unveils communications processors

IBM is adding its weight to the nascent communications processor market, an explosive arena that parallels the PC processor market of the early 1980s.

IBM is adding its weight to the nascent communications processor market, an explosive arena that parallels the PC processor market of the early 1980s.

As previously reported, Big Blue today announced a series of initiatives and products in its opening salvo aimed at a chip market that is tied closely to Internet-related networking and consumer products now seeing heady growth.

The move potentially puts IBM in a battle with chip giant Intel for dominance in an emerging market for the central processors that drive communications equipment.

Two new products, the IBM Network Processor and a Packet Routing switch, are targeted at the manufacturers of network gear. Manufacturers would use the components as part of routers and other network hardware capable of achieving high "gigabit" speeds.

IBM also established the Communications Research and Development Center, with locations in Zurich; Haifa, Israel; Yorktown, New York; and Raleigh, North Carolina. The center will be responsible for developing future networking components, such as advanced communications switches and routers used for ferrying traffic across a computer network.

IBM announced it would also partner with C-Port in defining an application program interface (API) standard for networking systems. This software would allow manufacturers to enhance networking system performance without necessarily changing the hardware.

Today's announcements follow another major initiative on Tuesday, a a $2 billion dollar agreement with Cisco that calls for supply of components to the communications equipment giant. This covers supply of chips and switching equipment, according to Kevin Reardon, director of strategy at IBM's Technology Group.

Cisco will also purchase routing and switching intellectual property from IBM's Networking Hardware Division.

The communications processor segment is a young though potentially gargantuan market; its stage of development in some respects harks back to the early 1980s and the development of the PC chip. A study by International Business Strategies shows the communications chip market growing from $28.3 billion in revenue in 1998 to $90.4 billion in 2005.

In addition to a host of start-up companies already driving the market, Intel announced a networking chip and a new chip architecture that defines how Intel will design future networking processors and describes how to write software for the chips.

Growth in communications chips is being fueled by booming Internet use, e-business, and demand for combined voice and data services, according to IBM.

The key to the new family of IBM communications processors is that the members will be programmable, much like a PC's chip, and targeted at networking infrastructure products like routers, hubs, and switches. The company will back this up with a communications research and development center to focus on new technologies for components used in communications products.

Analysts see IBM's entry as a catalyst that sets off explosive growth.

"They are a premier [chipmaker] and have research facilities only equaled by Bell Labs," said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects. He cites IBM's materials research in germanium and SOI chips as examples of its leadership in this area.

"Now you'll see a proliferation of products based on research that IBM has been doing for years."

IBM is none too soon. Dzubeck portrays the communications processor business as having some of the same hallmarks as the fledgling PC processor market had in the early 1980s when Intel entered in earnest. "The [age of the] market is measured in months, not years."

Like the PC industry then, makers of communications products will move from highly specialized chips--semiconductors known as ASICs--to more generic designs that use processors and software available to the industry at large.

Companies like Motorola make "networking" chips but these are specialized, ancillary chips which are "much further down the food chain" than processors that IBM and Intel would supply, according to Dzubeck. The latter would serve as the main processing engines for communications equipment.

The need for speed
The upshot is a new generation of chips that is fast and programmable, allowing networking hardware makers to quickly add new protocols, security, and other features. This allows the companies to quickly bring new equipment to market. Customers also benefit because the products have longer life spans.

This means "less chips, less time to market, less cost," according to Dzubek. Many current designs contain a smorgasbord of chips and circuits. He says this can now be done more efficiently without "an army of people" to design a specific product.

He said there is one important difference, however. IBM--and others--will not necessarily try to impose standards on the market like Intel did. The industry will be predicated on open standards based on open APIs. Instead, IBM will use its sheer semiconductor technological and manufacturing muscle to win customers and market share.

This push, like major strategic initiatives from Big Blue over the last 12 months, is coming from IBM's Technology Group, which sells disk drives, displays, and a variety of chips to customers like Dell Computer, Compaq Computer, Acer, and EMC.

"Demands on networks are exploding, and makers of communications equipment are looking for new ways to meet those demands," said Christine King, vice president of wired communications for IBM Microelectronics, in a statement. "IBM has a combination of semiconductor technologies, system design know-how, and research and development that we're consolidating and bringing to bear in this space."

IBM's new communications product family includes the IBM Network Processor, a high-speed multiprotocol processing engine for gigabit switch routers and other network hardware, and the IBM Processor for Network Resources. Another key component is the IBM Packet Routing Switch, a set of technologies including subsystem chips, system companion chips, software, and test tools.

Companies making related products include Texas Instruments, Lucent Technologies, Broadcom, MMC Networks, and Conexant, and a crowd of small start-up companies.

But IBM will be working with other players too. IBM and C-Port today announced plans to develop standard APIs to enable independent vendors to write software that runs on processors from both companies. The companies "intend to make their individual network processor technologies work closely together, allowing equipment manufacturers to incorporate both into their products."

C-Port has also selected IBM to build its C-5 Digital Communications Processor and intends to work with IBM as its key technology provider to enhance future generations of the processor.

"This is a wonderfully fragmented market. You'll see a lot of winners," Dzubeck said.