Fairchild Semiconductor International Inc. is hedging its bets. While proclaiming the inevitable dominance of switch fabric protocols for I/O technology, the company has sidestepped the infighting and expanded its product portfolio to support InfiniBand, RapidIO, and other emerging high-speed protocols.
"We're not tightly affiliated with any particular standard yet," said Paul Kierstead, director of interface marketing at Fairchild, South Portland, Maine.
"The switch fabric is becoming dominant in the high end of equipment such as central-office and high-performance routers and in big servers and storage areas," Kierstead said. "Fairchild has the low-voltage differential signal building blocks that form the foundation of building one of these switch fabrics."
Fairchild doesn't expect to see significant business volumes in any particular standard during the next 18 months. "Most of the market today is quite fragmented, with lots of proprietary solutions," Kierstead said. Suppliers that are linked with a particular standard tend to be only loosely affiliated, with most products remaining proprietary, he noted.
The market has moved from a distributed backplane architecture toward switch fabrics, and Fairchild has moved with it, according to Kierstead.
A distributed backplane allows only one driving card to align with one receiving card at a time, so the bandwidth is limited. In a switched fabric architecture, there are nonblocking switches that allow several driving cards to talk to several other cards simultaneously. That improved flexibility and higher data transfer speed has become increasingly important in communications applications, Kierstead said.
Last year the most advanced physical-layer devices called for speeds of 3Gbits/s. By 2006 that speed will increase to 40Gbits/s, Fairchild said.
Eventually, the industry will adopt one of a handful of the emerging protocols as a standard, and customers will determine which protocol has the best cost/performance ratio for their applications. Fairchild's goal is to be positioned to offer volume products at reasonable costs, Kierstead said.
Fairchild's strategy of offering generic products suitable for multiple architectures is a good tactic for the company, said Will Strauss, an analyst at Forward Concepts Co., Tempe, Ariz.
"This whole new I/O switched fabric architecture is a hot number right now, but the jury is still out on which standard is going to win."
Strauss said the standards will be polarized by application, with processor makers, for example, supporting one protocol and SAN makers supporting another.
"It took years for the PCI bus to become the dominant PC bus," Strauss said. "It will be a three- or four-year transition before it's clear there's a market leader among the switch fabric standards, if there ever is one."