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New Broadcom Ethernet switch chip fine-tunes the cloud

Broadcom's new Tomahawk Ethernet chips offer super speed, switch-level packet flow analytics and dynamic policy control to enhance cloud network performance, but they've got plenty of competition.

Broadcom Corp. launched a new set of Ethernet switch chips with two-and-a-half times the throughput of its Trident II chips and a deeper level of programmability for SDN cloud environments.

The new StrataXGS Tomahawk chips ratchet up the already heated competition in the network switch chip market, which barely even existed a few years ago when network hardware vendors simply used proprietary ASICs.

In recent weeks Cavium, unveiled its Xpliant switch chips, which upped the ante on both throughput and chip programmability. Meanwhile, this year Intel has reworked its x86 processors to handle virtual network loads and developed new Ethernet switch silicon.

The network switching race is centered on both speed a new level of programmability that supports automation and dynamic provisioning in cloud networks. Broadcom was the first merchant silicon provider to address both of these needs with its Trident II chips, which can now be found in many large enterprise data center network switches.

The new Tomahawk Ethernet switch chips are not meant to replace the Trident II chips. Instead they aim for the cloud with higher throughput that both matches Cavium's Xpliant chips and far surpasses the Trident II.

The new chips deliver up to 3.2 Tbps of switching capacity and are the first to enable 25 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) connectivity at every port. Tomahawk chips can support switches with 32 ports of 100 GbE, 64 ports of 40 or 50GbE or 128 ports of 25 Gbe. Broadcom is part of a consortium of vendors developing 25 and 50 GbE technology and pushing the IEEE to consider new Ethernet standards.

"Today, if you look at top-of-rack switches based on 10 and 40 Gigabit Ethernet, we've maxed out front panel density on a 1U switch. You can get between 32 and 36 QSFP ports in the front panel of a 1U switch, so if we stick with 10 gigabit data planes, we are stuck," said Bob Wheeler, principal analyst at The Linley Group. "Broadcom is enabling you to move each lane port from 10 gigabits per lane to 25 gigabits per lane, which is 2.5 times the bandwidth out of that same 1U switch." 

Broadcom Tomahawk switch chips offer packet visibility, control

Broadcom also aims to tune cloud fabrics by enabling switch-level packet analytics on the Tomahawk and using those analytics to dynamically reconfigure traffic flows for optimization.

The visibility is provided by the BroadView feature set, which captures "every packet and flow, along with analytics" to show congestion and remaining capacity, said Rochan Sankar, director of product marketing at Broadcom.

That information is then shared with Tomahawk's FleXGS packet processing engines which can dynamically apply load balancing and other traffic controls to avoid congestion. The Tomahawk chips have flexible forwarding profiles that can be altered as policy is dynamically changed.

The analytics from the chips can also be shared with a centralized SDN controller or network virtualization platform, enabling new policy to be pushed out over an entire network or overlay.

"Network virtualization controllers will want to understand the behavior and encapsulation capabilities on the switch and make sure that model is consistent," said Sankar.

Broadcom took a largely different approach to providing more programmability than Cavium. Cavium avoided hard-coding on its Xpliant chips so they could be altered to support new SDN and network virtualization protocols as they arise. Broadcom's Sankar says the Tomahawk chips have built-in support for network tunneling protocols, such as VXLAN, NVGRE and MPLS, and could also be altered to support more standards, but that's not the company's immediate intention.

"Real-time configurability is what matters most," said Sankar. "Network virtualization protocols are emerging, but they don't happen so quickly. They still have to be standardized."

Wheeler applauds Broadcom's move to optimize cloud fabrics with further programmability, but he says new chips alone aren't enough to make change.

"The missing piece is that there has to be software support in operating environments like NSX or in application software that would tie into these capabilities," said Wheeler. "Broadcom had a lot of supporting quotes in their press release, but we don't know of specific support for Broadview yet."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Rivka Gewirtz Little, or follow her on Twitter.

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