Despite setbacks in its Gigabit Ethernet program, Intel Corp. has quietly begun sampling its Cheetah chips for high-end LAN/WAN networks.
According to sources at last week's Gigabit Ethernet Conference in San Jose, Intel shipped its initial Cheetahs-physical-layer (PHY) ICs for copper-based 1,000- Mbit/s Ethernet networks-to several OEMs and chip makers, including Galileo Technology Ltd.
"Intel has just shipped the product to us, but we won't know if the part works until we test it," said a source at Galileo, San Jose. Galileo's switch chips work in conjunction with stand-alone PHY ICs, which send and receive signals across a network.
Given the Cheetah's past track record, many are holding their breath while the chip is being evaluated.
"Intel is late to market," said Rick Faust, an analyst at Adams, Harkness & Hill Inc., Boston. "Intel is six to nine months behind its closest competitor, Broadcom."
Developed by Intel's LAN-chip subsidiary, Level One Communications, Cheetah was supposed to be shipped by early 1999. But Intel encountered some undisclosed technical problems with the chip, causing the delay, sources said.
The Cheetah's development has been further slowed by the recent resignation of some of the chip program's key members, who have bolted to Broadcom Corp.
In response, Intel last month filed a suit against Broadcom for unfair competition and the alleged theft of trade secrets. According to Broadcom, the former Intel employees named in the suit haven't begun to work at the Irvine, Calif.-based company, and therefore could not have revealed trade secrets.
An Intel spokesman declined to comment on the status of Cheetah, although the company has hinted it may formally announce the part later this month.
If Intel can make good on its promises, OEMs will undoubtedly welcome the PHY ICs, which are critical to their high-end networking systems.
So far, Broadcom is the only company shipping a PHY chip for copper-based Gigabit Ethernet networks. Recently, National Semiconductor Corp. began sampling a similar chip, while others are preparing to jump into the market.
Last week, Massana Inc., a fabless IC-design house, announced plans to enter the market by year's end. Massana will not offer a stand-alone PHY chip, but instead will license its technology as IP cores, according to Irving Gold, vice president of marketing at the Campbell, Calif., company.
The stakes are huge. The Gigabit Ethernet networking-equipment market will grow from sales of $19.8 million in 1998 to $1.36 billion in 2001, according to Dataquest Inc., San Jose.
Currently, however, demand for Gigabit Ethernet running over copper wires remains modest, according to Craig Hedges, regional sales manager at Foundry Networks Inc., a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based supplier of switch equipment.
"We don't expect the market to take off until the technology matures sometime in the second half of this year," he said.
One of the issues is cost. Foundry Networks sells an eight-port switch for copper-based Gigabit Ethernet networks for about $5,595, or nearly $700 a port. "We think that we can drive down the cost to below $500 a port by year's end," Hedges said.
By comparison, some vendors are selling an entry-level Fast Ethernet network switch for as low as $20 a port.