Little IBM chip fuels faster gear

IBM's Network Hardware Division is developing a network chip that Big Blue hopes will power a fast, flexible new generation of IBM and third-party switches and boost the division's flagging fortunes.

Code-named Rainier, the network chip will increase network throughput by at least 30 percent in devices it is built in to, IBM executives claim. The chip, which is about the size of a stamp, will support Layer 2, 3, 4 and 5 switching and routing and will permit wire-speed links among Ethernet, ATM and SONET networks.

Ultimately, products using the chip will let users more easily build networks capable of guaranteeing quality-of-service (QoS) levels at high speeds, IBM claims.

Rainier could also become one of the crown jewels in IBM's plan to become a bigger player in the OEM realm. Michel Mayer, general manager of NHD, likens Rainier's role to that of Intel's Pentium processor. "Rainier will be an off-the-shelf network processor that we want to become as ubiquitous as the Pentium," he says. "The idea is to make Rainier work with everyone's switching fabric."

Mayer also said he expects Rainier to be an integral part of high-end IP switches from major network vendors within a year -- though he declined to say which vendors were looking at using the chip.

IBM has had some success OEMing its technology to other vendors. Alcatel, Nortel Networks and others use the Prizma chip. Cisco, Xylan and Juniper Networks also use IBM technology in their products. NHD is now part of IBM's Microelectronics group and intends to use that division's extensive reselling channels to deliver Rainier.

NHD is looking for a success story as it is trying to redefine its role in the network equipment market and within IBM's hierarchy.

The success of this chip is an open question and will depend on vendor acceptance, says Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects, a Washington, D.C. consultancy. A number of companies besides IBMare building network chips, but Dzubeck notes this is one of the first QoS chips to come out. "It's very sophisticated," he says.

The first Rainier chip will appear in modules in new IBM IP switching devices within the next year, company sources say.

Rainier will also be used in an upcoming line of IBM hybrid switch-routers and new server interconnect devices that will let users link and load balance high-capacity servers. It has yet to be determined how IBM's new devices will be configured.

Initially, Rainier will support 40 Fast Ethernet or four Gigabit Ethernet ports, says Marco Heddes, a system engineer at NHD. It will handle Ethernet and packet-over-SONET traffic and act as a bridge between those networks. Later, IBM will support ATM.

Adding greater flexibility to resellers or enterprise network users, Rainier will be programmable to handle specific types of policy and high-speed encryption and decryption operations, he says.

Rainier will also work with IBM's recently announced policy engine, a directory-based management technology that eases prioritising access to net resources. Users will be able to program Rainier to perform lookups in its database for virtual LAN identification.

After its first release, possibly in the next half year, there will be new iterations of Rainier every six months.

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