Switch/router makers to become apps providers? ASICs could disappear from comms gear

April 19, 2013 // By Rick Merritt
Nick McKeown, an engineering professor at Stanford University, expects a new breed of merchant networking processors to replace ASICs in routers and switches over the next decade.

McKeown says he has looked into the future of communication processors “and if you squint hard it looks like RISC for networking.” McKeown helped kick start the movement toward software-defined networking based on the OpenFlow protocol. Its goal is to enable a new class of software apps that manage gangs of simplified switches and routers.

If the effort succeeds it could ease and lower the cost of running large data centers and business networks. It will also disrupt the current business model based on expensive network gear that uses complex ASICs and proprietary code. McKeown sees a new breed of merchant chips taking the place of the big ASICs companies such as Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, Ericsson, Juniper and others design today. The first attempts at creating them likely will emerge over the next two or three years, he said.

In a research effort with Texas Instruments and others, McKeown created a prototype on paper of the new device. It essentially consists of a parsing engine that interprets the increasingly wide set of headers on each packet then pushes the packet into a pipeline of execution units that match patterns in the headers and take actions on them.

“It's a brute force feed-forward pipe of match and action, match and action,” he said, relating work in a paper now under review for publication. The paper reports that for 15% more silicon area and power such a chip could handle any current or future protocol at the same performance levels as today’s protocol-specific ASICs. McKeown predicts that in a decade the big router and switch players will have replaced their ASICs with such merchant chips and morphed into software companies.

“We’ll look back in 10 years and they will be providing control plane software and apps on top of it,” he said. Two or three companies are said to be exploring such chips already including startup xPliant and existing players such as TI