The SLX 9140 and SLX 9240 models, announced earlier this week, use the XPliant switch chip from Cavium, one of a few up-and-comers battling the dominance of Broadcom’s Trident and Tomahawk chips. (A third switch, the SLX 9540, does use a Broadcom chip.) And Brocade has already taken advantage of the chips’ programmability.
Quick acceptance for XPliant, which began shipping late in 2014, isn’t a huge surprise. Recently, Broadcom owned as much as 90 percent of the market for merchant chips for network switches. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think that OEMs might be interested in a high-end alternative.
XPliant can drive a high-end switch, and it has an extra wrinkle in being programmable.
That lets systems vendors overcome one handicap of using Broadcom, namely that every Broadcom switch has pretty much the same specs. It’s difficult to stand out when you’re using the same chip as nearly everybody else.
“The programmable pipeline is very attractive to us. We used that programmability on Day 1,” says Nabil Bukhari, Brocade’s vice president of product management for switching, routing, and visibility.
In fact, Brocade is already taking advantage of the programmability. Neither the 9140 nor the 9240 uses the default packet-processing pipeline that Cavium provides; both include Brocade tweaks, says Bukhari. And the switches are also programmed for some of Brocade’s own visibility features.
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The programmability of the chips isn’t a one-time thing. The XPliant chips can be hot-upgraded — that is, they can be reprogrammed after the switch has been deployed. This means code updates can be pushed to live systems. The switch starts to resemble a piece of software that can be updated with security revisions or new protocols.
In fact, that’s why Brocade selected XPliant for the 9140 and 9240 — its top-of-rack switches — specifically.
“That is the place where technology is moving very fast, much faster than the [normal] lifecycle of these boxes,” Bukhari says. Typically, a top-of-rack box stays in place for three years; that’s going to be too long of an upgrade cycle, Brocade believes.
“The OEMs really feel empowered by us to use all that knowledge they have,” says Eric Hayes, Cavium’s vice president of switch platforms. “There’s this inflection point where all the OEMs are looking at what tools they need to differentiate.”
The next step would be to let users program the chips, Bukhari says. “I do believe that in the next one or two generations of ASICs, we’ll reach that capability.”
Broadcom is acquiring Brocade in a $5.9 billion deal but intends to sell the company’s IP networking business, which includes data center switches such as the SLX family. Hanging on to that business would be just too awkward because Brocade’s competitors — the likes of Cisco — are the key customers for Broadcom’s Trident and Tomahawk chips.
Meanwhile, competition in switch chips could be heating up. Intel, Marvell, and Mellanox have all competed with Broadcom over the years, with varying degrees of fervor. More recently, startup Innovium declared its interest in this space. And Barefoot Networks is due to begin sampling Tofino, a chip to run the P4 programming language for software-defined networking (SDN), sometime this quarter.