Intel adds security to network chips

The forthcoming processors are expected to reduce the cost and improve the performance of networking equipment.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
Intel plans to announce a new network processor on Tuesday that will handle security functions, a move it expects will reduce the cost and improve the performance of networking equipment.

The company will also delay a similar product that does not offer security features.

The IXP 2850, due in the second quarter of next year, will route information packets inside switches and telecommunications servers, but it will also perform intelligent functions such as encryption or decryption, said Matt Campbell, a product marketing manager in Intel's communications division. Currently, these security functions require a co-processor.

"Most solutions from our competitors today require multiple chips to do content processing," he said.

Companies will likely use the Intel chip to power VPN (virtual private network) servers, he added. The chip will also be able to perform security functions at 10 gigabits per second, faster than current security co-processors.

The IXP 2850 will come out at around the same time as the IXP 2800, a programmable networking chip that will perform routing and processing functions but will not handle security tasks. The chip was originally supposed to start appearing this quarter, but has been delayed because of software issues, said a company representative.

Network processors are aimed at taking the cost out of making networking equipment. Historically, network equipment makers like Nortel Networks designed the chips, software and other components that went inside their boxes. The telecommunications meltdown, however, has forced them to lay off employees by the thousands and slash research and development budgets.

To survive in lean times, many are beginning to look at components from third-party suppliers, similar to how PC makers rely on other companies to design and make power supplies, chipsets, chassis and microprocessors. The horizontal manufacturing model cuts costs by reducing independent R&D.

"We're tracking about 500 to 600 design wins with network processors," said Linley Gwennap, principal analyst of the Linley Group. The security functions for the IXP 2850 should help make it an attractive offering, he added, because of the heightened concern about security.

That's not as easy as it sounds, however. Despite a flurry of activity and product development, getting design wins has been difficult. Product delays also show that perfecting these chips remains difficult.

"There was a time about 12 to 18 months ago where you and I were the only ones not announcing a network processor," said A.A. "Tad" LaFountain III, an analyst at Needham & Co. "As time goes on and network processor get faster by virtue of Moore's Law, they should be able to pick up more of the market potential."

Some networking executives have said that boxes built with programmable networking chips can't deliver the same level of performance as ones with tailor-made parts. Campbell, though, said the industry has begun to understand how to work with these chips.

"About a year or two ago, there was a bit of a learning curve with network processors," Campbell said.

The new chip, which includes two cryptography engines, makes use of technologies acquired by Intel during its massive buying spree from 1998 and 2001. Software originally from Shiva and iPivot will be used to perform many of the chip's VPN functions.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker will consult with customers and help them design equipment through a group acquired from Trillium. The IXA family itself originated from a project at Digital Equipment that Intel picked up in a massive legal settlement in 1997.

The IXP 2850 will cost $725 in volume quantities when it emerges in the second quarter of 2003, while the development tool for the chip, the IXPA 2850, will cost $12,000. The IXP 2800 will cost $425.

Intel will also release a new software developer kit and new software for programming the chip.