Alcatel leaps ahead with 400-gigabit routing chip

The company's FP3 chip will power four-port 100-Gigabit interface cards for carrier services

Alcatel-Lucent is charting a course to the next generation of carrier routers with new silicon that is focused today on delivering services from the edge of a network but could also power a massive packet engine for the core.

The company's FP3 chip, the latest in a series of packet-processing chips from the rising router vendor, can route traffic at 400G bps (bits per second) while meeting the special needs of many kinds of services. From its Tuesday launch, it will leap ahead of the fastest silicon from Alcatel's rivals and is expected to power a core router to take on Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks in the near future.

Alcatel is starting at the edge of service-provider networks to take on the explosion of IP (Internet Protocol) traffic generated by wired and mobile services for both consumers and enterprises. With a team of about 10 engineers that has now developed three generations of edge routing chips, the company has developed a processor that can handle packets at full speed for two 100-Gigabit Ethernet ports. Using just two FP3s, Alcatel plans to build a line card with four 100-Gigabit ports that each can operate at full line-rate in and out. This will provide twice the 100-Gigabit ports of any existing module, saving carriers space and energy.

The first line cards coming with the FP3 will have two ports and will be commercially available in the middle of next year, according to Lindsay Newell, vice president of marketing for the IP division at Alcatel. They will be compatible with all the Alcatel services routers shipped since 2004, he said. The company hasn't disclosed when it will deliver four-port cards.

The 100-Gigabit Ethernet standard was approved last year, but fewer than 1,000 ports using the technology have been shipped to carriers, according to Infonetics analyst Michael Howard.

By packing more speed and ports into the same space, Alcatel will cut the costs of deploying 100-Gigabit, analysts said.

"The big shift here is going from single-port cards to multiple-port cards," said Dell'Oro Group analyst Shin Umeda. "You're going to be getting a much more efficient cost structure."

Alcatel's services routers can be used with all forms of networks, including DSL (digital subscriber line), cable, business Ethernet and mobile systems. Although few 100G bps ports will serve any one customer directly, they provide a more efficient way of aggregating traffic from thinner pipes closer to subscribers. Each line card in a carrier's router takes up valuable space, power and cooling, and the more bits it can process, the more efficient the carrier's operations will be.

Cisco, Brocade Communications and Huawei Technologies all have at least shown line cards with two 100-Gigabit ports, Howard said. However, all of those cards use at least two circuit boards, where Alcatel's will use just one, he said. This should further increase efficiency while also aiding reliability and simplifying management, he said.

Alcatel has made major strides in edge routers over the past several years, growing from 5 percent of the worldwide market in 2005 to 22 percent in 2010, Umeda said. It is now the second-largest seller of such routers, having surpassed Juniper Networks. Over the same period, market leader Cisco Systems fell from 58 percent to 42 percent of the market. New silicon is driving growth in router capacity at all the vendors, but Alcatel has gained the top spot for now, Umeda said.

The FP3 is the third generation of edge-router processors from Alcatel. It has 288 programmable cores to handle higher-level tasks involved in delivering services such as voice, video and gaming with the correct quality of service and customer-specific policies. For example, a particular user may qualify for a certain level of performance, and services for that user will require specific billing processes. The new-generation chip achieves its performance gains with lower power consumption, according to Alcatel. The FP3 has just half the power requirement of the company's previous-generation processor, at 2 watts per gigabit per second, said Basil Alwan, president of Alcatel's IP division.

Because it's designed to process IP traffic with services, the FP3 can easily handle the standard IP routing that core routers carry out, Alwan said. In fact, observers expect Alcatel to enter that market eventually. Howard of Infonetics predicted Alcatel would announce such a platform by the end of this year. Alwan would not disclose any plans in this area but said other elements that would be needed for such a platform, such as multiple linked chassis, were well within Alcatel's grasp.

In addition to helping drive 100-Gigabit Ethernet forward, Alcatel's choice to build a 400G bps chip is likely to drive the networking industry toward 400-Gigabit Ethernet as the next fastest form of the technology, Howard said. The vendor is already betting on that speed for the specification.

"Four hundred is the obvious choice within the bounds of what is technically achievable in a reasonable time frame, that being two to three years, typically," Alcatel's Newell said. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which oversees Ethernet, has not yet formed a group to define the next standard. Some participants in the industry have advocated Terabit Ethernet.

The upcoming four-port 100-Gigabit line cards are likely to play an important role, however, as most service providers are still flocking to 10-Gigabit Ethernet for their fastest links, Howard said. He expects 100-Gigabit Ethernet links be a major part of their networks over the next 20 years.

"There's a long haul coming here for 100-Gigabit," Howard said. "We're just at the front end of it."

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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