Fall IDF : Intel offers network gear makers a hand

Intel Corp. on Thursday backed up its line of programmable networking chips with new development platforms, an updated software development kit, professional services and a tool for estimating product performance.

The new offerings for makers of network infrastructure products were announced by Eric Mentzer, vice-president and chief technology officer of the Intel Communications Group, in a keynote address Thursday morning at the Fall Intel Developer Forum in San Jose.

Developers of telecommunications network systems such as routers, multiservice switches and Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexers (DSLAMs) can use the tools to bring products to market more quickly, said Doug Davis, general manager of Intel’s network processor division, in an interview Wednesday.

Intel hopes to use the new offerings to push a network hardware model based on programmable rather than fixed-function processors and on an industry standard architecture that lets system builders integrate components from many different vendors. Tough times for telecommunications providers and resulting tight budgets for equipment makers are driving up interest in this approach, Davis said.

On Thursday, the company unveiled new development platforms based on the AdvancedTCA (Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture) specification. The IXDP2401, 2801 and 2851 development platforms include development boards featuring Intel’s IXP2400, 2800 and 2850 network processors. Also included are I/O (input/output) option cards and a chassis with slots for additional AdvancedTCA boards, such as single-board computers or switches. System vendors can use the platforms to put together prototypes of a system early in its development, integrating software and components from Intel, third-party members of the Intel Communications Alliance (ICA) and others, according to Intel.

Intel also enhanced its IXA Software Development Kit 3.1 with “example designs” that demonstrate network processor features and programming methods. Starting next year, Intel will offer application kits with software for specific uses of a networking device, such as routing or multiservice switching. That software will be ready to integrate with a vendor’s own software as part of the development process. Vendors will also be able to combine the kits with professional services from Intel Communications Software Services or from other ICA member companies.

As part of the IXA Software Development Kit, Intel will provide the Intel IXP2XXX Architecture Tool, a performance estimation tool that developers can use to estimate the performance of their application on a platform. Used early in the development process, it can contribute to better performance optimization, according to Intel.

Equipment makers are embracing programmable processors because the ways in which network protocols are being used are evolving so rapidly, according to Bob Wheeler, a senior analyst at The Linley Group, in Mountain View, Calif. For example, customer demands for carriers to meet service level agreements call for better quality of service (QoS) capabilities in devices.

A shift from application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) to programmable network processors means being able to build high-performance boxes that evolve to meet new needs, Wheeler said. However, the new chips haven’t always delivered on faster time to market, at least on the first version of a product, he added.

“Now you just have to develop complex software rather than developing complex ASICs,” he said.

That makes Intel’s new offerings critical, Wheeler said.

“Of the network processors that are in the market, it’s the most flexible but also, therefore, the most complex to program…Offering (only) what their competition provides is not enough,” he said, referring to network chip vendors such as Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC), Motorola Inc. and Agere Systems Inc.

That said, Intel has done a good job on the new development tools, Wheeler said.

Intel expects the IXDP2401 development platform to become available in the fourth quarter for a list price of US$14,190. The IXDP2801 and IXDP2851 should be available in the second quarter of next year for US$17,290 and US$17,690, respectively.

Example designs for the IXA Software Development Kit 3.1 are available now, and the application kits should be available in the second quarter of next year. Pricing will depend on the size of the customer’s deployment of the software, said Tracey Lempner, an Intel representative. The professional services offering is available now, with a price that depends on the individual contract. The IXP2XXX Architecture Tool will be available free in the first half of 2004.