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Year in Review: Data Centers Drive Networking

January 9, 2018

Author: Bob Wheeler

In wireline networking, 2017 was all about delivering new products, whereas the wireless world focused on developing next-generation standards. Data centers once again dominated Ethernet-chip news, although automotive designs also got attention. In Ethernet switching, programmability became mainstream even as the first 12.8Tbps chip reached customers. Leader Broadcom delivered on both fronts with Trident 3 and Tomahawk 3, respectively. Two new competitors, Innovium and Nephos, emerged; the latter is already shipping products.

The big server news was Intel’s Purley platform, which brought with it new OEM systems that offer 25G Ethernet connectivity. These systems marked the start of 25GbE adoption in the enterprise, and Cavium introduced network adapters (NICs) optimized for this market. As hyperscale data centers plan for 100G Ethernet server connections, Broadcom joined the ranks of 100GbE NIC vendors in 2017. Broadcom and Mellanox also introduced smart NICs that provide a powerful ARM CPU complex to offload networking functions from the server.

As the next-generation Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ax, reached draft 2.0, the major chip vendors all sampled related products. Marvell, Qualcomm, and Quantenna introduced chips that combine 8x8 MIMO support with the new standard’s OFDMA technology. Meanwhile, cellular technology advanced when the 3GPP achieved the major milestone of completing the 5G New Radio non-standalone (5G-NR NSA) specification. This standard sets the stage for 5G trials in 2018, even as Verizon starts deploying fixed-wireless broadband using its 5GTF specification.

In 2018, data centers will continue to attract greater chip-development investment than any other networking segment, and we should see the first 7nm switch designs reach sampling. But six vendors are now shipping 100GbE switch chips, so consolidation is inevitable. We should also see initial deployments of NVMe Over Fabrics, which will create demand for 100GbE server connections. In wireless infrastructure, 5G activity should drive renewed demand for FPGAs. For vendors that have continued to invest and execute, the near-term outlook is bright.

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