Intel targets networking market with new chipset

Intel introduces the Crystal Forest chipset, which fills a networking gap in its data center technology stack

Intel on Tuesday introduced the Crystal Forest chipset, which the company hopes will fill a networking gap as it tries to build an integrated technology stack for data centers.

The chipset has specific hardware and software-driven features that could speed up data processing on a network, said Steve Price, director of marketing for Intel's Communications Infrastructure Division. The chipset could aggregate network data quicker from servers inside data centers without compromising performance or security.

Intel is trying to make a mark in the network processor market with the new chipset, where it could compete with companies such as Cavium, AppliedMicro and Tilera. Intel previously offered ARM-based network processors as part of its communications unit, which it sold to Marvell for US$600 million in 2006.

A lot of cloud transactions are processed in data centers and network processors bring together data quicker so results can be delivered faster to users, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. The new chipset could be Intel's attempt to pair the networking element to its microprocessors and components as the company tries to fill the data center technology stack, Brookwood said.

The chipset could be a replacement for custom silicon currently being integrated in servers to handle complex networking tasks, Brookwood said. Intel is always trying to integrate more components at chip level inside servers and Crystal Forest could be a high-margin product for the company, Brookwood said.

Intel's chipset can handle up to handle 160 million packets per second on a dual-processor server platform, Intel's Price said. The company is targeting Crystal Forest at 3G and 4G network and security product providers.

"When you compare it to dedicated network processors, it's very competitive," Price said.

The chipset includes a CPU based on the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture, I/O, Ethernet interface and new hardware called QuickAssist, which accelerates cryptography, packet processing and deep-packet inspection. QuickAssist was derived from software technology that previously performed similar functions, Price said. The company also provides a set of software libraries to takes advantage of Intel instruction sets for faster network processing.

Crystal Forest succeeds Jasper Forest, a Xeon chip that had an integrated I/O hub and found adoption in storage devices and server appliances. Beyond being a network processor, the new chipset can serve general purpose, storage and security needs.

Intel in July agreed to buy networking firm Fulcrum Microsystems, which makes 10 Gigabit Ethernet and 40 Gigabit Ethernet switch products. Intel is looking to integrate Fulcrum switches with Crystal Forest chipsets at the rack level, Price said.

Companies like Cisco and Juniper offer custom chips that are designed to handle extremely high data rates, Insight 64's Brookwood said. Intel will benefit if one of the big networking companies buying its technology, Brookwood said, adding that network processors will remain a small project inside Intel compared to its main chip business.

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