Intel drops network processor development

Passes the ball to deep packet inspection start-up Netronome.

Intel has divested itself of yet another "non-core" product line, signing a deal to pass on design and marketing of its popular IXP network processors to Netronome Systems, a start-up which specializes in deep packet inspection (DPI) technology.

The deal is cast as "an exclusive technology licensing agreement", but essentially Netronome will design, market and sell future generations of the high end IXP2800 line. The new chips will be made by commercial fabs or foundries, not by Intel, although Intel said it would continue to make and sell older models of IXP.

Jarrod Siket, Netronome's senior VP for sales and marketing, was at pains to stress that the deal wasn't a purchase of the IXP business, claiming it was not related to Intel's sale of its XScale mobile processor business to Marvell last year. He said Netronome has not taken on any Intel staff - although Intel VP Doug Davis will join Netronome's board - and added that it already has hardware engineers capable of designing the next generation of chips.

However, while it's not formally a sale, it is clear that the next generation of high-end IXPs - to be called Network Flow Processors - will be Netronome products, not Intel. Siket said that the plan is to build into silicon the Layer 4 to 7 capabilities that are needed for DPI, and are currently layered on in software.

The IXP 2800 combines multiple micro-engine cores with an XScale-based controller, and is aimed at very high throughput applications - it can do deep inspection of network flows at up to 10Gbit/s, or 20Gbit/s in a dual-processor configuration.

It competes with chips from a number of smaller developers - including Marvell, as it happens - and had won Intel around 25 percent of the $300 million a year network processor market. However, the chip giant lost interest in this niche when it determined to focus back on its core CPU business.

Netronome already uses Intel IXP chips in its own DPI acceleration cards and SSL appliances. It will now offer DPI chips too, to other manufacturers who build specialized networking and security devices, such as firewall and VPN devices, content security appliances and intrusion detection/prevention systems.

Siket argued that the two businesses will not conflict because Netronome's acceleration cards are aimed at the "hundreds of ISVs who build applications for standard servers, but are now running out of gas because a standard server can't keep up with 10 Gigabit Ethernet." He added, "It's higher up the market where they take chips - I don't know of a company doing both."

He said that the new Network Flow Processors would be compatible with IXP, and will support the Intel software and hardware development kits.

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