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IBM jazzes up chip for office networks

Big Blue on Monday will announce a lower-cost version of its PowerNP network processor that will feature attributes usually seen in more expensive hardware used by large companies.

IBM is jockeying for control of your office's network traffic with a new chip.

Big Blue's Semiconductor Division on Monday will announce a new, lower-cost version of its PowerNP network processor, the PowerNP NP2G, that it says will bring new capabilities to networking equipment for such settings as local offices.

The new chip, like IBM's current network processors, acts as a network traffic cop inside network hardware such as a switch by inspecting and then determining where to route data packets, bundles of data that are the basic element of communication between networked computers.

The chip can process up to 5.6 million packets per second for so-called OC-12, or 2-gigabit-per-second, computer networks that are commonly used in offices. Unlike its predecessor, the PowerNP NP4GS3, the new chip is intended for lower-cost networking equipment such as routers in small-office networks.

By incorporating the new chip into low-cost network equipment, IBM said, manufacturers will be able to add a host of new features usually seen in more expensive hardware used by large companies or network service providers.

For example, small office routers or switches could now include a firewall or support a virtual private network (VPN), two software tools designed to secure data sent over a network. Currently, these features are available from IBM only on its pricier network processors, such as the NP4GS3.

IBM also claims that manufacturers can shave costs by reducing development times by six to 12 months through the use of its off-the-shelf PowerNP chips and development tools. At the same time, manufacturers can focus engineering efforts on areas deemed more critical to the success of a product than the processor, such as beefed-up security.

NP2G IBM will also market the new NP2G chip to server manufacturers. Using the chip, manufacturers could add VPN and other network protocol-related processing functions to their servers for a few hundred dollars, said Steve Longoria, director of IBM Network Processors. Currently, manufacturers sell standalone network devices such as firewalls for prices starting around $150.

The Intel challenge
While the global semiconductor market slumped in 2001 along with the PC market, network processors were able to carve out a healthy niche, allowing the category to grow despite the slump. Manufacturers shipped about 100 million network processors in 2001, up about 35 percent from 2000, according to researcher Dataquest.

"This environment presents more of an acceleration for the adoption of network processors," Longoria said. "When this market turns, the mix of custom ASICs (chips created specifically for a device) versus network processors doing packet processing is going to be much higher for network processors than we had thought."

IBM won't be able to grab share unencumbered in the low-end network processor market, thanks to competition from several other chipmakers, including Intel.

Intel's IXA network processors are entrenched in that market, analysts say, in part because of the communications company acquisitions made in 1999 and 2000.

"It will take awhile for IBM to show it can compete there," said Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at The Linley Group.

"Intel in particular has shown there's a lot of demand for a (network processor) at less than $200," he said. "The question is, can IBM get traction against Intel there? I think IBM will definitely rack up some design wins."

The NP2G chip offers a competitive price of about $195. It is also compatible with IBM software development tools for network applications and shares the same hardware socket layout as the PowerNP 4GS3 chip. This allows hardware makers to use the two chips interchangeably in their devices.

The chip is available in small quantities now for manufacturers to sample. It is expected to begin shipping in large volumes in June, Longoria said.

Products based on the NP2G are expected to come to market by the end of the year, he said.