SAN JOSE, Calif. The arrival of new companies and chips this week will fatten the emerging category of merchant silicon for storage networks. Astute Networks will detail the first of a coming generation of 10-Gbit/second storage processors at the Network Processors Conference West here, as several others announce chips geared for today's Gigabit Ethernet and 2-Gbit Fibre Channel networks and as two startups declare plans to produce serial ATA switches for low-end hard disk arrays.
At least a dozen newcomers, most founded toward the end of the dot-com bubble, are chasing the opportunity for merchant semiconductor accelerators for storage protocols and applications, vying with half a dozen entrenched vendors and in-house ASIC designs. But all face deep uncertainties because of the current slowdown in spending on business networks and the downturn's still-unclear impact on expected technology shifts.
Most of the upstarts are targeting an expected transition to Ethernet storage networks from Fibre Channel or direct-attached storage. While some point to an uptick in OEM design activity in this sector, the transition has already seen a year's delay, and the horizon for real end-user sales of Ethernet-based storage systems is probably 2004 or beyond, analysts said.
"No Fortune 100 company has made any commitment to deploy iSCSI [the storage term for Internet Protocol] in any major way. The business proposition for iSCSI is still being worked out," said Sean Lavey, an analyst with International Data Corp. (Framingham, Mass.) who notes early 1-Gbit iSCSI server cards cost about $500, nearly the same as 2-Gbit Fibre Channel cards.
"The market is in such a premature stage that there will still be several changes before winners and losers emerge," said Jag Bolaria, a senior analyst with The Linley Group (Mountain View, Calif.). "Today you could say Trebia Networks and Silverback Systems are winners because they are here with products, but a year from now we could see products from a whole pack of companies that aren't saying much now."
The long-term outlook for storage chips remains upbeat, thanks to an ever-rising tide of e-mail and Web data. Indeed, some market watchers forecast that businesses ultimately will spend more on storage than on computing. But given the number of emerging players many with innovative ideas but almost all needing another round of funding before they achieve sustainable revenues uncertainty defines the short term.
Architecturally, the new entries span from hardwired implementations, focused on performance and offering their own applications programming interfaces and C library function calls, to implementations based on arrays of general-purpose processor cores that could tap more off-the-shelf development tools. Few clear performance metrics exist for the group, and even the underlying applications requirements are uncertain, given the still young, diverse and fragmented nature of storage systems and networks.
The 10-Gbit crowd
Perhaps the most noteworthy of the new entrants is Astute (San Diego), the first of a crop of startups aiming at network storage processors with 10-Gbit capability. At the Network Processors Conference (NPC), Astute will launch its Pericles processor, aimed at handling a variety of protocols (including TCP, Fibre Channel and iSCSI) for a range of systems, from storage switches, gateways and servers to the converged Fibre Channel-Ethernet storage systems under design.
Pericles takes a hybrid approach, using hardwired protocol-processing blocks for such tasks as frame parsing, state management and flow coherency and tapping an array of ten 32-bit Tensilica RISC cores, running at 267 MHz, to process user-defined storage protocols or applications. Astute provides flow keys for any combination of user-defined protocols or traffic types. OEMs use the chip's API and C-programming libraries and tools blend in their own storage applications for those flows.
"We could have used any cores but decided to use Tensilica because we really liked their tool set," said Allyn Pon, director of customer marketing for Astute.
The chip is made in a 130-nanometer process at an unidentified foundry. It comes in a 720-pin ball-grid array and will sample this year. The company declined to provide pricing and die size.
Astute has racked up two major design wins. Agilent has licensed Astute's technology and will deploy it on its next-generation multiport iSCSI host bus adapters, then develop its own variants of the chip to sell to HBA and network storage systems makers.
"We looked at six or seven TOE [TCP offload engine] suppliers. With the Astute core we think we are in better shape to scale to 10G than anyone," said Bob Hansen, director of strategic marketing for Agilent's storage-networking group. "They have done a good job incorporating a finite state architecture with flexible cores, making it relatively easy to add remote direct memory access technology in the future, and they have very, very high performance."
Astute also has a design win in a next-generation storage controller from Pirus Networks (Acton, Mass.), recently acquired by Sun Microsystems' storage group.
Astute's road map is still unclear, and chief executive officer Tom Sennhauser said the company likely will need at least one more round of venture funding.
Nonetheless, Astute has "the most powerful product that will be available in the short term," said analyst Bolaria.
Indeed, Astute appears to be a step ahead of a pack of 10-Gbit Ethernet storage processor players, most of which probably won't emerge for 12 months. They include Aarohi Communications Inc. (San Jose), Chelsio Communications (Sunnyvale, Calif.), iVivity Inc. (Norcross, Ga.) and Siliquent Technologies Inc. (Tel Aviv, Israel). One anomaly in the group is Le Wiz, which appears to be focused on an intermediate generation 4-Gbit processor and is said to have a beta customer in trials, but few details are available from the company, Bolaria said.
The Gigabit group
Among the 1-Gbit competitors, Trebia (Acton, Mass.) will roll out its first three chips at NPC, fielding the broadest array of products of any startup in its class.
The SNP-1000 aims to bridge two Gigabit Ethernet storage links to a single 2-Gbit Fibre Channel network. The SNP-1000i is just the TCP offload portion of that chip and is aimed at a broad range of storage systems. The SNP-500 adds dual serializer/deserializer blocks and a RISC core to the 1000 to create a more integrated, programmable storage processor.
The protocol processor at the heart of the 1000 and 500 chips is a state machine based on two ingress/egress pairs of proprietary 256-bit VLIW cores running at 125 MHz. The part kicks out up to 350,000 I/Os per second and requires 32 to 64 Mbytes of board-level memory. The 180-nm chip packs 86 million transistors and comes in a 696-pin package. It is sampling now and costs $335 in volume.
LSI Logic Corp. and three other companies have active designs with the Trebia parts, mainly in host-bus adapters, and at least one of the OEMs is shipping sample subsystems this year, said Brendon Howe, vice president of marketing at Trebia.
Trebia competes with a handful of other relatively new companies, including Silverback, which was among the first storage-networking startups to detail its silicon.
Also joining the fray is iReady Corp., which got its start designing intellectual property cores for embedded TCP. At NPC, the company will announce its first chip, developed with partner National Semiconductor Corp. The EMX 1000+i is a TCP/iSCSI processor that differentiates itself by integrating a Gigabit Ethernet PHY and hardware support for IPsec.
Chief executive Ryo Koyama said the EMX is a full state machine implementation that gets 1-Gbit/s performance with a 64-bit engine using a streaming-style execution at a pedestrian 50-MHz clock rate. It will scale that clock up to handle multiport versions next year and a 10-Gbit version in 2004. The EMX requires 32 to 64 Mbytes of off-chip memory to handle packet acknowledgement.
National and iReady will both sell the part, which is made in National's 180-nm process, when it samples in January.
Also at NPC, Seaway Networks Inc. (Ottawa) will sketch out the Streamwise technology behind its upcoming network content processors, which handle TCP termination and higher-layer processing and use a HyperTransport interface. The company, founded by a former Nortel Networks chip design team, is targeting a number of applications outside storage processing.
"We have a keen focus on the security area," said marketing manager Steve Goodman.
But analyst Bolaria said he believes Seaway is "struggling with what they want to disclose. That may indicate they are not sure themselves where they want to be yet."
Among other storage-networking startups, Aristos Logic is focused on today's mainstream Fibre Channel networks . And at least two companies APT Technologies Inc. (Santa Cruz, Calif.) and Sierra Logic Inc. (Roseville, Calif.) are aiming at low-end arrays linked by the emerging serial ATA specification.