The intrigue of network / packet processors

I’ve always been intrigued by network or packet processors such as those made by Intel.

They are used as embedded processors by many network router or switch equipment manufacturers to provide high speed programmable functionality on line cards or ‘blades’ controlling other associated line-speed logic such as programmable ASICs.

What makes them intriguing to me is that they can undertake deep packet inspection at true line speeds on a 1gbit/s Ethernet port, and maybe even 10gbit/s is possible.

It’s a no-brainer for equipment vendors to use such devices as a key mechanism to provide flexibility for changes in standards, but what about other uses?

Back in the late 1990s, when network processors were gaining widening recognition, several start-up companies developed generic network processor based cards and targeted their marketing at carriers. The idea being, I suppose, was that carriers could use these generic network processor products to develop innovative and differentiated services. Several companies come to mind; Netrake over in Dallas, Tipping Point, Force Computers in Germany (bought by Motorola and were one of my customers back in the early 80s when they were one of the first companies to offer a set of industrial cards based on the Motorola 68000 16-bit microprocessor) and our very own Newport Networks (One of Terry Matthews’ company of Mitel and Newbridge Networks fame). Another company who work in several application areas is CloudShield.

This strategy generally proved disasterous (though I’m open to be enlightened!). Why? Well yes the telecoms industry crashed, but the strategy broke well before that. My take isthat the majority of carriers did not have the software expertise or the resource to undertake such down in the bits and bytes development. Outside of incumbent carriers such as BT, FT and DT, who were ‘blessed’ with their own R/D departments, the majority of carriers expect this sort of work to be done by equipment vendors and their role in life was simply to implement the service features they created. I remember Mercury Communications in the mid 1990s setting up a software development department to develop Intelligent Network applications with somewhat mixed results.

As a bynote, in the IP router world, many of these advanced features were never switched on by carriers as they were just too scared of the possible results! I always remember asking John Chambers of Cisco why this was the case when he visited C&W in the late 90s. I will not quote his reply here!

Most of the vendors offering generic network cards were forced into application markets which they targeted by creating the appropriate personalisation software. Netrake and Newport Networks went for VoIP service inter-connect while Tipping chose security related markets.

I came a cross a new UK company in this space last year that looks really interesting: Netronome who focus on the appliance market. I hope to write more about them later.

I have always been interested in the possible use of generic network processor cards by a start-up to create innovate new services operating at line speeds. However, there are not too many examples that I know, so if you are aware of any companies doing this please let me know.

In the UK there are certainly not too many. However, one is Nexagent, a company I co-founded with Charlie Muirhead back in 2000. They use network processors to manipulate 8-bit CoS (CoS, Class of Service, was outlined by the IETF Differentiated Services Working Group to create Diff-Serv service levels) packet header bits at full line speed as well as other sophisticated functions. The need was caused because the IETF never defined standards for defining class levels so each carrier ended up with different CoS bit definitions. If carriers or systems integrators want to interconnect their MPLS networks or IP-VPN services to create end-to-end CoS multi-carrier services, mediation is required at each carrier domain boundry. Network processors were used to achieve this.

Network processors still intrigue me as their use looks like a black art to most engineers and there are not too many individuals around who understand or can programme them (this is a bit like analogue design I suppose!). But when you need to use one, you need to use one as doing anything at true line speeds is impossible with traditional PC approaches. By the way, the development software for network processors comes from Teja.

I’m sure there are other innovative applications and I continue to hunt for them. I have recently come across another UK company who might need to use network processors for a highly imaginative service. If I’m allowed to, I will write about them a future blog entry.

Who says technology is not fun?

Addendum: The insistent beat of Netronome!

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3 Responses to The intrigue of network / packet processors

  1. Charlie says:

    Network Processors are the only way forward for true wire speed packet inspection and packet modification i.e. DiffServ, NA(P)T, Policing etc. Used in conjunction with other in line devices, commercially available or in house designs, the speed benefits and hence the performance outstrips any other type of processors. As to the ‘Black Art’ of programming these devices; I think it is more due to the lack of knowledge and/or fear of true parallel processing. Although, debugging at these speeds is the biggest challenge.

    NP Application Designer

  2. […] further network processor chip manufacturer Following yesterday’s posting on network processors, a colleague from San Francisco brought to my attention another company that produces network […]

  3. […] mentioned Netronome in a previous post about network processors – The intrigue of network / packet processors so I wanted to bring myself up to date with what they were up to following their closing of a $20M […]

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