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An Ethernet switch chip showdown is brewing … at last

Broadcom has dominated the merchant Ethernet switch chip market, but that control may not last long. It already faces competition from Intel and now Cavium has entered the fray with its Xpliant acquisition.

An Ethernet switch chip war is taking shape as Cavium lines up behind Intel to battle Broadcom in a networking market turned on its head by SDN, network functions virtualization and the rise of white box switches.

Cavium and Intel are both acquiring chip makers that will let them tackle high performance networking with more flexible and intelligent network silicon, combined with heavy duty processing power.

Intel first entered the Ethernet switching market with its Fulcrum acquisition in 2011 and the subsequent release of its Open Network Platforms for Switch and Server Reference Designs. This week Intel announced plans to acquire network chip maker Axxia, an arm of Avago Technologies, for $650 million cash. Avago bought Axxia as part of a larger acquisition of LSI Corporation last year.

Last week, Cavium, a provider of multi-core processors, announced it would acquire Ethernet switch chip startup Xpliant in a $90 million deal. Cavium was already an early investor in Xpliant, which designs Ethernet silicon specifically designed for programmable data center and cloud networks.

Until just a few years ago, most network vendors designed custom silicon, differentiating themselves through the features of their ASICs. But with the rise of 10 GbE switching and programmable networks, some vendors began to turn to merchant silicon, which offers enormous speed along with the flexibility to take on new features and protocols. Merchant silicon also has fueled the rise of white box switches, running new network operating systems from startups, such as Cumulus Networks.

Broadcom has dominated this newly opened market. It recently unveiled its Trident II chip, which has built-in network virtualization features, such as VXLAN tunneling. Most major network switch vendors, as well as a slew of start-up bare metal switch makers, are relying on Trident II to deliver low-cost, high-density data center switches with network virtualization features.  

"Intel bought Fulcrum a few years ago, and they haven't achieved their objectives -- they haven't gained significant share in Ethernet switching," said research analyst Lee Doyle of Doyle Research. "[Intel and Cavium] have to come and say here's what our engineers came up with that is way better than what Broadcom is doing."

With Xpliant, Cavium combines processing power with silicon intelligence

For Cavium, the differentiator could be in tight integration of its heavy-duty processing with Xpliant's silicon intelligence.

"Cavium has always had a strong position in network processors. They could do anything you can throw mixed cores at," said 451 Research chief analyst Eric Hanselman.  With its multi-core processing, Cavium's technology takes on complex features like deep packet inspection, advanced analytics and next generation storage on x86 platforms, Hanselman explained.

But in order to take on the new protocols and features of SDN and network virtualization, that processing must be paired with intelligent and flexible silicon, he said. More importantly, the chipset would have to be intelligent enough to share the processing responsibility between the silicon and the multi-core processor. Doing too much at the processor can break the hardware, but putting it all in silicon would be complex and expensive, Hanselman explained.

Basic forwarding is straightforward, said Hanselman, but "when you start thinking about building queues for rate control, that's a little more sophisticated." Doing all of that in silicon would take a ton of development time, he said.

Cavium has not outlined its Xpliant strategy yet, but it said in a press release that existing network silicon is inflexible and unable to keep up with new network features in the data center such as SDN and virtualization.

Intel makes an acquisition for mobile with possible SDN implications

Intel's Axxia acquisition is focused on the mobile and cellular world, but could play a role in SDN and network functions virtualization (NFV) for the enterprise.

In a blog earlier this week, Intel vice president Rose Schooler said the Axxia technology would let service providers scale mobile networks to handle vast growth from the Internet of Things. Specifically she said Intel will have the ability to create a unified platform to combine "four critical network workloads (application, control, data and signal processing) on a single architecture."

Using the new technology, Intel will be able to push intelligent packet processing out to base stations in a cellular network, which will be necessary for migrating features such as virtualized evolved packet core and traffic management to NFV.

The Axxia acquisition shows that the battle in network switch chips will extend way further out than the data center, Hanselman said. The mobile network is the perfect place for the marriage of processing and intelligent silicon, he said.

But Intel may have more in mind for the Axxia technology. LSI was making silicon for SDN before it was acquired by Avago in 2013.

Earlier this week, FierceEnterpriseCommunications.com highlighted a white paper released by LSI regarding show how its Axxia silicon enabled SDN-specific features, such as built-in OpenFlow support.

Every vendor says, 'We run on Trident and really soon we will run on Fulcrum.' When we ask how soon, they say, 'Really, really soon.
Eric Hanselmanchief analyst, 451 Research

"The transition from OpenFlow1.0 spec, OpenFlow revision 1.3 significantly increased the complexity as it tried to cover many types of network topologies and protocols. LSI proposes the use of intelligent silicon for a new scalable alternative to solve emerging complexities," the white paper says. The paper says Axxia acceleration engines can be used to support load balancing and traffic routing to the appropriate OpenFlow control plane server in a hybrid SDN scenario.

Cavium and Intel must build a vendor and ODM ecosystem

As Cavium and Intel roll out their strategies, they'll need to build an ecosystem of switching vendors and ODMs that commit to designing switches to their specifications the way that Broadcom has.

 "They have to get to a point where they are seen as a viable hardware platform," said Hanselman. "Every vendor says, 'We run on Trident and really soon we will run on Fulcrum.' When we ask how soon, they say, 'Really, really soon.'"

Next Steps

Broadcom ships Trident II

Cumulus' Broadcom-based bare metal switching

Understanding Intel's SDN vision

Dig Deeper on Network services

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Can Cavium catch up in the Ethernet switch chip market?