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10Gb Ethernet gains with board, chip designs

Posted: 01 May 2006     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Rick Merritt  10GbE  Ethernet  NetXen  server card 

The slow shift to 10GbE in the data centre has gotten two small but significant nudges forward. Startup NetXen Inc. announced last March that it is shipping a programmable dual-port 10Gbit server card, selling for Rs.26,850 ($600), excluding optics. Its action was followed by Broadcom Corp.'s announcement of a 20-port 10GbE chip for stackable switches.

"That's big news for this sector of the market," said Bob Wheeler, who follows the Ethernet arena for The Linley Group.

The 10GbE market was tiny in 2005, when only about 200,000 switch ports shipped. But the products indicate an uptick ahead for the technology in the data centre, particularly inside server blades and for short-reach copper lengths.

Broadcom has become the first of the mainstream Ethernet silicon companies to roll out a 20-port 10Gbit part for stackable switches. "It's a significant enabler," Wheeler said.

The StrataXGS III 800 series consumes less than 100mW/Gbps and is sampling now, with production set to begin in June. Fujitsu Ltd and Fulcrum Microsystems Inc., smaller players in this arena, have already announced 20- or 24-port 10GbE switch chips.

The NetXen adapter card is also raising eyebrows, especially since the board is now shipping for IBM BladeCenter and Hewlett-Packard Proliant and blade server products. "I'm pretty impressed with these guys. They have a significant lead on Broadcom," said Wheeler.

Significant enabler
Broadcom acquired 10GbE startup Siloquent for its 10Gbit server chips last year and is expected to release new products from the group before year's end. The products will likely include multiple 10Gbit media-access controllers (MACs) and support for the PCIe interface.

NetXen's dual-port 10Gbit adapter uses the 8x PCIe bus at a time when many competitors are shipping single-port 10GbE adapters using the slower PCI-X interface and selling for Rs.44,750 ($1,000) or more. In addition, NetXen says, unlike the competition, its devices are programmable.

The NetXen NX2035 has four proprietary processor cores optimised to handle a range of protocol, security and XML parsing jobs. The company is delivering software to accelerate TCP on Windows Server and Linux operating systems. It is working internally and with third parties to deliver software for remote direct-memory access (RDMA), bulk encryption algorithms, iSCSI, XML and other protocols over the next year.

NetXen provides a C-language API and the software development tools to let OEMs create custom applications for the device.

Acceleration technology
The startup's approach is roughly similar to the small changes Intel Corp. is making in its server processors, chipsets and network chips to accelerate TCP and, later, XML and RDMA. It's using a technique called I/O Acceleration Technology, or IOAT, which will arrive next year in Intel's Bensley server platform, Patrick Gelsinger, general manager of Intel's Digital Enterprise unit, told the recent Intel Developer Forum. At that event, HP showed a prototype server that cut processor overhead from 43 per cent to 16 per cent with the help of IOAT. So far, however, Intel has focused the acceleration technology on GbE products.

"Intel is accelerating data movement to applications buffers," Wheeler said. "But that's just a small part of the issue, and they have not said anything about how they will scale to 10Gbits."

NetXen claims IOAT will increase speeds by only 15 to 20 per cent, based on Intel's white papers, which is all the chip giant has publicly disclosed so far. By contrast, the startup claims it will deliver a 3x to 4x acceleration gain.

NetXen founder and CEO Govind Kizhepat said he got the idea for a programmable part while working as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Benchmark Capital. "I saw a lot of people coming in pitching appliances or chips for accelerating networking or storage or security, and I came to the conclusion there was a bigger opportunity for something that would not be a point product," he said.

IBM's BladeCenter H, launched in March, is the first blade server system to use 10GbE for backplane signalling. It could mark the start of a trend for server makers that want to consolidate their blades' current Ethernet, Fibre Channel and Infiniband interconnects into one or two higher-bandwidth options. "Eliminating an extra fabric in blades is a big win," said Wheeler.

To capitalize on that trend, NetXen has developed a board specifically for blade servers as well as three more-traditional server adapter cards using XFP optical and CX4 copper Infiniband cabling. It has versions of its chips with 2GbE and 4GbE MACs. The chips on average consume 7-8W and come in a 31mm2 package. Throughput is 14-16Gbps.

For optimal performance, the chips require up to 64Mbytes of double-data-rate internal memory and 1Mbyte of quad-data-rate external memory.

The chips are now in production in a 130nm TSMC process.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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