The viability of the merchant NPU market is the result of adoption by Tier One OEMs across a broad range of network-equipment segments. In 2015, we believe all Tier One OEMs are using merchant network processors in selected designs. Even those with internally developed NPUs — such as Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, Ericsson, Huawei, and Juniper — are using merchant products in some designs. These OEMs, however, are continuing to pursue internal development, limiting the growth rate for high-end merchant NPUs.
Although the network-processor market as a whole suffered a four-year revenue decline in 2011–2014, the top-line view does not tell the whole story. Revenue from high-end NPUs has been growing since 2012, whereas sales of access NPUs have been in decline. Revenue from high-end NPUs grew 10% in 2014, while revenue for access NPUs fell 10%. Shipments of high-end NPUs have been growing thanks to demand for service-provider routers. By contrast, access NPUs declined as the transition from 3G to 4G (LTE) wireless technology reduced demand from base stations and RNCs. Looking forward, we expect the NPU market will return to significant growth in 2016 as the access segment becomes a smaller contributor and high-end shipments continue to rise.
EZchip is the leading supplier of high-end merchant NPUs, and larger Mellanox is acquiring it. The company is shipping multiple product generations including the 200Gbps NP-5, which combines a customer-programmable packet processor, traffic manager, and Ethernet MACs. It has worked with Marvell to supply special versions of its NPUs to Cisco, which primarily uses them in the ASR 9000 router. EZchip is developing a new 400Gbps NPU, called the NPS-400, that handles Layer 4–7 features and offers easier programming than traditional NPUs. It’s also shipping intelligent NICs based on processors from Tilera, which EZchip acquired in November 2014.
Broadcom is shipping NPUs in two product lines, which have their origins in two different acquisitions. From the Sandburst heritage, the company is shipping the customer-programmable BCM88038 — the industry’s first full-duplex 100Gbps NPU. In the former Dune line (now branded StrataDNX) Broadcom is sampling the BCM88670, which delivers an industry-leading 720Gbps of throughput. Although the BCM88670 is internally programmable, the company sells it as a configurable device using factory-supplied microcode. The StrataDNX family includes a complete switch fabric that works with both Broadcom NPUs. The company is also the leading vendor of search coprocessors with its KBP family. Thanks to its broad offering, Broadcom provides system solutions that are more complete than any competitor’s.
Netronome is now the only privately held company developing NPU silicon, but it primarily delivers these chips as part of intelligent NICs. Rather than competing for carrier-equipment designs, it principally targets security appliances and other data-center applications. The company shipped its 40Gbps NFP-3240 and associated iNICs in 2011. In 2015, Netronome shipped the NFP-6xxx and new FlowNICs that scale throughput to 200Gbps. Designed for stateful flow processing, the NFP devices were the industry’s first NPUs to perform advanced services such as IPSec, SSL, firewall/NAT, load balancing, and deep packet inspection.
In the access market, PMC-Sierra is the leading vendor. The company entered the NPU market in 2010 by acquiring Wintegra, a leading vendor of access NPUs because of its flexible architecture and complete data-plane software. Following the acquisition, PMC focused on wireless-backhaul designs, where support for legacy protocols continues to differentiate the WinPath NPUs from Ethernet-only alternatives. In 2014, PMC began production of WinPath4, which scales performance to 40Gbps.
Also referred to as TCAMs or network search engines (NSEs), search coprocessors offload NPUs by performing lookup functions. Cisco and other leading OEMs combine search coprocessors with both merchant and internal NPUs, resulting in a merchant search-coprocessor market about two-thirds the size of the merchant-NPU market. As with NPUs, some OEMs also possess proprietary search designs.
Through its NetLogic acquisition, Broadcom became the dominant supplier of search coprocessors. Its traditional competitor is Renesas, which primarily supplies TCAMs to Cisco. Two new entrants, Cavium and Marvell, hope to compete with Broadcom using algorithmic implementations that promise to reduce power. Depending on their application, OEMs now have at least two vendors to choose from.