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Intel plugs new network processors

The chipmaker announces new network processors this week for a market that may finally begin to take off.

Intel announced three network processors this week for a market that may finally begin to take off.

The three new chips--the IXP 420, 421 and 422--are all essentially the same XScale-based chip programmed with different software for specific niches.

The IXP 420 is a communications engine for broadband modems. The IXP 421 performs the same functions but comes with additional software so it can also carry IP telephony traffic.

"This eliminates the need for a separate processor" for voice, said Hank Allard, product manager for the IXP 400 line. "A lot of broadband providers are offering voice as an enhanced service."

The IXP 422, meanwhile, is a broadband communications chip with integrated algorithms for encryption, decryption and other security functions.

The entire family is aimed at small and medium-sized businesses, unlike the corporate-class IXP 2800 line.

Network processors were supposed to be the next big thing in 1999 and 2000. Communications and networking companies had historically spent millions of dollars to develop their own chips. But many of these traditional chips could only be used in a few different boxes. Thus, programmable chips from silicon specialists that could fit into a variety of machines appeared to be an ideal solution.

The opportunity to become the leader in this new market once loomed so large that more than 40 companies, ranging from Intel and IBM to well-funded start-ups, discussed plans to design network processors.

The telecom meltdown put many of these projects on hold.

"The recession has affected everyone," Allard said. "There were all of these presumptions that network processor designs would turn into actual network processor products. That hasn't happened."

Despite the palpable disappointment, manufacturers are beginning to tune into the network processor concept. Demands for performance have continued to grow, however, the cost of designing chips hasn't declined. Later this week, networking company Linksys plans to announce that it will adopt the IXP 422, said Allard.

"The basic economics are now compelling," he added.

Samples of the three chips will be shipped to select customers in March. In July, volume production will begin on the 420 and 422; shipments of the 421 are due to start in September. Prices in quantities of 1,000 start at $20.90 each.