Network gear gets connected

Future networking devices such as switches and routers could meet new user demands more quickly and cost less after the completion this week of the ASI (Advanced Switching Interconnect) specification.

The specification, based on the emerging PCI Express interconnect for PCs and servers, is designed to make building a networking product more like creating a new computer, with processors and other components from third parties that all can communicate with each other in the same language. Currently most networking vendors use proprietary interconnects, missing out on the competition and economies of scale in the PC and server businesses, said Allyson Klein, initiative marketing manager at Intel Corp.

Sample quantities of chips using ASI should begin shipping early in 2005, and boxes built with them are likely to hit the market later that year, Intel officials said.

The ability to mix and match parts without the need to create proprietary interconnects could cut the development process on a typical networking device, now often two years or more, down to one year, Klein said.

That means boxes with innovative capabilities could get into the hands of enterprises more quickly. Even more ASI-based gear is likely to end up in the networks of carriers and Internet service providers, who may be able to offer new kinds of services with them, according to Rajeev Kumar, advanced switching initiatives manager at Intel and president of the ASI Special Interest Group, which created the specification. A complementary protocol, called PI-8, could even allow for networking chassis that accommodate computing and storage modules along with communications blades, he added.

ASI, along with the ATCA (Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture) specification for designing a full equipment chassis, could have a big impact on carriers and even enterprises over the next several years, said Eric Mantion, an analyst at In-Stat/MDR, in Scottsdale, Arizona. ASI is one of the interconnect technologies supported by the ATCA standard. Just about any piece of gear for wired or wireless carrier networks could be built using ATCA, and standardization could save carriers money and give them more flexibility in providing services, he said.

For example, carriers today have to keep in stock a different kind of fan for every type of equipment they use, Mantion said. With ATCA gear, fans could be standardized and keeping those inventories would be easier. More importantly, being able to combine communications and computing hardware in the same chassis could make a carrier's infrastructure less expensive, more reliable and easier to manage. Mantion gave the example of a switch with an integrated server, which could form the basis of a secure data service that's run from the carrier's central office.

"All the traffic that comes in to the Gigabit Ethernet switch from the outside world might get run through the side of the switch that's a blade server and is running antivirus software," Mantion said.

One thing Mantion doesn't expect is for the high-end network equipment business to become a commodity market like the PC industry. Though some elements of hardware will be interchangeable, products will still be distinguished by software and by the details of hardware design, he said. Though an ATCA module from one vendor would physically fit into another vendor's chassis slot, it might not be fully functional.

However, ATCA eventually could be a big boon to enterprises when it hits blade servers, Mantion believes. Server makers haven't yet started using ASI, but with the technology, blades could become interchangeable and vendors could provide generic software to manage a rack full of them, he said.

Industry support from big network system vendors is strong for ASI and especially for ATCA, because the standards promise to let vendors concentrate on what they do best without having to create their own interconnect or chassis design, Mantion said.

ASI isn't the only game in town as a standard interconnect, though. ATCA also allows for Serial Rapid I/O as an interconnect, and a combination of Infiniband and Hypertransport also could be applied to some uses, Mantion said.

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