If you were waiting for Cisco’s ASIC culture to die out, it looks as if your wait just got a generation longer. A generation in terms of routers, that is. Cisco announced this morning that it’s acquiring Israel-based Leaba Semiconductor for $320 million in cash.
Leaba hasn’t yet disclosed what it’s doing; Cisco is saying only that it’s an “infrastructure” play.
Dune made switch fabrics. They’re akin to the Ethernet switch chips that Broadcom excels at (think Trident and Tomahawk) — but Dune’s designs were intended for higher-end systems and telecom networks. In other words, they were big, complex chips that not just anybody could build.
People did try. In the early 2000s, there was a small bubble in startups for network processors — chips that handle packed processing at high speeds. Dune’s switch fabrics performed a slightly different function but were part of the same wave. All of these companies were hoping their chips would be used by router and switch vendors — maybe Cisco, but more likely the wave of up-and-comers that was expected to rise up.
That never happened. Cisco and Juniper continued to dominate the router market and stubbornly continued building their own ASICs for switching and packet processing. (Arista didn’t exist yet and, to my knowledge, doesn’t need Dune’s kind of switching complexity anyway.)
So, the network processor companies died out. Among the few survivors was EZchip, which got acquired by Mellanox for roughly $606 million net, a deal that closed just last week. (On a side note, the latest EZchip product, the NPS-400, got announced yesterday.)
Next to EZchip, Dune’s $178 million acquisition price might sound paltry, but Dune had gone through a long slog with limited prospects — and don’t forget the economic crash of 2008. Considering how many of Dune’s compatriots withered away, it wasn’t a horrible payout.
Fast-forward to 2016. Router vendors have begun using merchant chips from the likes of Broadcom, but Cisco, Juniper, and Nokia (through the acquisition of Alcatel-Lucent) still pride themselves on designing their own chips for their highest-end systems.
So, whatever Leaba was doing, it’s a fair bet that the company’s engineers will now be charged with designing router and/or switch chips for a future line of Cisco boxes. This time around, Dagan and Iny have found their place in the market a lot more quickly.