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Standards fight could pit IBM against Intel

A consortium of semiconductor makers led by IBM wants to create a standard method to write software for the emerging networking processor market--but Intel, the leading chipmaker, doesn't want to play.

A consortium of semiconductor makers led by IBM wants to create a standard method to write software for the emerging networking processor market--but Intel, the leading chipmaker, doesn't want to play.

A standards push, if successful, would give Cisco Systems, Cabletron, and other networking firms a common blueprint for writing software for networking chips, which serve as the nerve center for routers, switches, and other networking equipment.

Dozens of chipmakers, including Broadcom and MMC Networks, have been racing to build a new generation of networking chips that allow firms to quickly add new technology--such as new protocols, security, and other features--into networking products.

Intel in the past year has spent billions of dollars to acquire firms to enter the growing multibillion-dollar communications chip market, now the hottest area of the semiconductor industry. Although Intel hasn't totally ruled out participating in the new standards effort, called the Common Programming Interface Forum (CPIX), it plans to take a wait-and-see approach and could even create it's own standards group, according to an executive.

Starting standards
The new standards group, which includes IBM, start-ups C-Port, SiTera, and others, will meet for the first time this month with hopes of finalizing a standard within a year. Its goal is to create common "application programming interfaces," or APIs.

"It allows system developers to choose the best chip for their application without the cost of rewriting the software for every specific device," Wade Appelman, SiTera's vice president of marketing, said.

"We want to deliver the right solution, whether it's our API's [application programming interfaces] or someone else's, to help bring their products to market faster and at lower cost."

But analyst Sean Lavey of International Data Corporation (IDC) believes the push for a common software development method will eventually split into two camps: IBM vs. Intel.

Intel recently created a $200 million communications fund to invest in start-ups and established companies that are interested in collaborating with Intel and bringing its networking chip architecture to the forefront.

"It's unknown where Intel's headed, but it's mostly to create their own consortium," Lavey said.

The issue is akin to the desktop operating system market, where Microsoft's Windows operating system dominates Apple's Macintosh system, Lavey said.

"If you have one set of APIs, you have third-party developers creating software around that API, and it basically eliminates competition," said Lavey. "It's like saying Windows-based software developers vs. Macintosh software developers."

But Appelman said that while Intel may want their APIs to become the de facto standard to corner the market, the chipmaker will have to work together with other firms to create a software model as networking firms will demand it.

"We're all trying to get the acceptance of network processors in the market and we all have to work together," Appelman said. "Our sales force will slug it out to the death and we'll talk about how our technology is better, prices are lower, and performance is better, but we have to subscribe to standards."

Yet Mike Wodopian, vice president of business development and strategic planning at Level One Communications, an Intel-owned subsidiary, said that the company is committed to standards.

"We want to deliver the right solution, whether it's our APIs or someone else's, to help bring products to market faster and at lower costs. That's the ultimate goal," he said.

Questions remain
Industry observers claim that establishing standards, while helpful, may not be the fix-all the market needs.

"What they're doing is a step in the right direction, but whether it ends up being the panacea that solves every communications problem remains to be seen," Wodopian said.

Wodopian said he believes there will be many more initiatives to create a standard model for writing software for networking processors, and Intel wants to explore the different options before agreeing to support any standard.

"We believe in standards, but it's not clear that there will be a one-size-fits-all that will solve the spectrum of problems," he said.

Most chipmakers agree that standards will help fuel the growth of the new generation of networking processors. In the past, Cisco, 3Com, and other hardware makers had to choose between two types of chips: custom-made processors that were fast but not programmable; and general-purpose chips, such as Intel's Pentium chip, that was slower, but flexible enough to add new features.

The new networking chips are both fast and programmable. In addition, Intel and other chipmakers believe that network-hardware companies would rather buy processors than build them from scratch, which they have historically done.