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Wire Speed

Wire Speed Feature

September 13, 2010

IBM Launches Wire Speed Processor Chips

By Susan J. Campbell, TMCnet Contributing Editor

Networks continue to increase in complexity and those companies who have been unable to keep up with the latest innovations to meet the challenging demands in this space have found themselves out in the cold. An EE Times article focused in on the efforts of IBM (News - Alert) and how it is finally producing a processor with the wire speed to make it more competitive.

IBM released a line of wire speed processor chips that the company expects will put it back into the network processing business. The 45nm SOI chip – IBM’s wire speed processor – is built up from a number of accelerators and 16 cores based on a new 64-bit embedded PowerPC processor, which is capable of handling four threads.

Charles Johnson, chief architect of wire speed processors at IBM refers to this latest innovation as the most complex chip IBM has ever built. Johnson noted the company realized their approach might be more complex than Power7 when the IBM fabrication people start telling his team that their masks were so hard to build. So, Johnson’s team started counting the transistors on the chip

So, just how powerful is this wire speed processor? Consider that the 16-core chip packs 1.43 billion transistors into a 428mm-squared die. IBM’s high-end server CPU – known as the eight-core Power7 – is built with 1.2 billion transistors in a 567mm-squared die.

The Power7, however, is designed for the highest performance, while the wire speed processor is aimed at highest throughput per Watt. According to Johnson, the chip stands between a multicore server processor and the more conventional packet processors.

The wire speed processor chips will be used in a range of standalone systems and PCI (News - Alert) Express adapter cards in servers. Johnson referred to the chips as an extreme example of workload-optimized computing.

While the wire speed processor is intended for internal IBM uses right now, there are some within the industry who question whether IBM could be competitive if it took the chip outside of the company.

Linley Gwennap, principal of market watcher The Linley Group, noted that the chip is huge and bigger than most of the PC and server processor Intel (News - Alert) makes. It is also likely twice the size of many network processors and the associated cost could make it tough for IBM to be competitive in this space.

"I don't see where they are getting something significantly better than using a merchant chip," he said. "The good thing for IBM is it leverages their PowerPC infrastructure and software rather than using a MIPS-based chip from Cavium or NetLogic (News - Alert)," Gwennap added.

While it is too soon to tell what direction IBM will take with this chip and its potential success in the market, the demand for wire speed processing certainly exists. The ensuing battle for market share could be an exciting one to watch.

Susan J. Campbell is a contributing editor for TMCnet and has also written for eastbiz.com. To read more of Susan’s articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Erin Monda