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Broadcom, Intel SDN offerings: What's the difference?

Glen Kemp breaks down the differences between Broadcom and Intel SDN chips and reference designs.

Editor's note: Glen Kemp is an independent consultant and is in no way affiliated with Intel or Broadcom.

I've been hearing a lot about Intel and Broadcom and their reference designs and SDN chips. What is the difference between what Intel and Broadcom are doing with their SDN-related offerings?

Intel and Broadcom both have stakes in the emerging SDN market, but it might not be obvious as to who is the bigger player.

As of Q1 2014, Broadcom's Trident II chipset has made it into shipping hardware from vendors such as Cisco Systems, Juniper Networks, Extreme and others. With broad industry uptake, this can be considered a successful foray into the heart of the software defined network. Broadcom has addressed this market with hardware support for the VXLAN and NVGRE overlay protocols, and ToR-desirable features such as TRILL, ECMP and, critically, OpenFlow. Although Broadcom produces silicon for a variety of network OEMs, as a silicon specialist, they tackle the network I/O functions and not directly the software parts of software defined networking.

Intel, by comparison, has a two-prong approach with its Open Network Platforms for Switch and Server Reference Designs. Unsurprisingly, the Server Reference design (Sunrise Trail) leverages the Xeon-based x86 platforms for the orchestration and control of the hypervisor. The switch reference design (Seacliff Trail) is, by modern standards, a relatively unexceptional 48x10GbE/4x40GbE ToR device that leverages the Fulcrum-acquired assets. Intel's tactics cover all bases; with OpenFlow and OpenStack support, physical and virtual switches can be controlled as one. Intel's Data Plane Development Kit atop WindRiver Linux is a key factor in optimizing OpenSwitch performance.

The support for open standards in both reference designs is significant because it allows the adopting OEM a great deal of scope for customization and added value. Intel's broader approach is likely to gain a foothold in operator and other platform-based businesses that can find value in controlling the whole end-to-end design. However, it will be a while before SDN will be deployed as a turnkey solution, and as a result, many consumers will opt to test and prove the components on a piecemeal basis. Using a reference design available from a wider selection of vendors may very well make the transition easier for the nervous CIO.

Next Steps

Broadcom ships Open Network Switch Library, an open development platform for bare-metal switches

This was last published in May 2014

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