Network chip makers unite

In a few years, network gear will be built a lot differently than it is today, according to silicon manufacturers at NetWorld+Interop ’99 Atlanta. The result for customers could be equipment that is easier to upgrade and lasts longer.

Instead of using custom silicon to move packets at wire speed, switch makers will be able to speed traffic along via a combination of software and network processors. Plus, with standard interfaces between network equipment components on the way, switch vendors will be able to include software and silicon from different suppliers in their switches.

A group of five companies led by IBM and C-Port was formed recently with the intent of creating standard programming interfaces for this emerging class of network processors. Called the Common Programming Interface (CPIX) Forum, the group plans to meet next month to determine the software areas on which it should focus.

The organization will work with the similarly named Common Switch Interface (CSIX) Consortium, which is defining interfaces at the hardware level between switching fabrics and communications processors. CSIX is finishing its draft specification and hopes to demonstrate interoperability among different vendors’ components by October 2000.

The new architecture will first benefit equipment vendors, which will be able to assemble their switches from components obtained from different suppliers.

Users will also profit. Although Application Specific Integrated Circuits deliver speed, they aren’t flexible. With the new architecture, users will be able to add features, such as quality of service (QoS) or security, to switches as they become available, just by downloading software.

This ability means that users will be able to keep their equipment longer, explained Clint Ramsay, vice-president of marketing at C-Port, a start-up that makes communications processors.

Mark Christensen, vice president and general manager of Intel’s network communications group, touted the benefits of network processors in his Interop keynote address. “We have to be ready for the applications of the future, even if we don’t know what those applications are,” he said. Equipment makers could write services, such as security and QoS guarantees, as software to run on network processors, Christensen said. “Silicon enables the new class of services that the Internet community is going to demand,” he said.

In addition to IBM and C-Port, the CPIX Forum’s initial members include: Inverness Systems, a network software supplier; SiTera, another network processor maker; and SwitchOn Networks, which makes packet classification coprocessors.

The CSIX Consortium has 20 members, including Broadcom, C-Port, IBM, Maker Communications, Power X and XaQti.