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Cavium broadens its Xpliant switch-chip offerings 

  • Two families of Xpliant switch chips have been unveiled: the XP60 with sub-terabit switching capacities and the mid-range XP70 devices with 1 to 1.8 terabits of capacity.
  • The switch ICs broaden the datacom and telecom markets Cavium can now address. 
  • Cavium is developing a next-generation high-end switch chip but the company is not saying when it will be announced. 

Cavium has broadened its portfolio of switch chips. The two families - the XP60 and the XP70 - have smaller switch capacities than Cavium’s XP80 Xpliant family and feature architectural enhancements.

“The new chips expand Cavium’s addressable markets to include enterprise and carrier-access networks as well as mainstream cloud data centres,” says Bob Wheeler, principal analyst for networking at The Linley Group.

John Harrsen

The switch chips enable Cavium to address 25-gigabit interface switches, power-constrained enclosure designs such as blade servers, and 5G cloud radio access networks (CRAN) and GPON aggregation.

Until now Cavium has offered three XP80 Xpliant switch ICs, the largest being a 3.2-terabit switch. In contrast, the three XP70 devices have switch capacities of 1, 1.4  and 1.8 terabits while the XP60’s three chips have 280, 560 and 720 gigabits of capacity.

“The vast majority of the spend in this market is still the mid-tier; it is not all at the high end,” says John Harrsen, marketing director, switch platform group at Cavium.

Cavium stresses the importance of offering a broad portfolio of switch devices given the high development cost of software for systems vendors. Porting a vendor’s network operating system onto the switch chip is a $5 million to $10 million undertaking, he says: “Customers will not invest in software which is a point solution; it is too damn expensive.”


Programmability enhancements

The Linley Group’s Wheeler points out that traditional Ethernet switch chips are not programmable and that Cavium was the first to production with a programmable switch chip. “Barefoot Networks is the only competitor with a similar level of programmability,” says Wheeler. “So the Xpliant chips are attractive to customers that want to implement custom features or protocols.”

The XP60 and XP70 remain code-compatible with the XP80 devices but the programming model has been enhanced based on three years of experience gained from customers programming the Xpliant architecture.


The new chips expand Cavium’s addressable markets to include enterprise and carrier-access networks as well as mainstream cloud data centres


“You look at how the functionality wanted by a customer gets distributed across the hardware primitives that exist in the switching pipeline,” says Harrsen. “That data and experience are then fed back to the architects that start tinkering with the architecture to make it easier to use and manage.”

Cavium’s switch chips do not use an instruction set because it does not deliver the performance needed by a switch chip, says Harrsen. Instead, a combination of a very long instruction word (VLIW) parallel architecture and look-up tables are used for the programming. “We have primitives dedicated for certain functions that have parameters that can be programmed,” says Harrsen.

One example is parsing packets where the offset into the packet can be programmed. Another is the seed used for a cyclic-redundancy check (CRC) engine used to check packets. Cavium uses a C-like high-level language to program its chips.

The flexibility of a programmable architecture is also reflected in the ability to support extensible protocols. Such protocols feature a type-length-value field that allows changes to be made to a protocol, in effect the protocol header can morph into different things.

One such extensible protocol is segment routing which is gaining in popularity among data centre operators although it has yet to be deployed. “It is an example of a header that we did not anticipate ever supporting but having a programmable architecture, we can,” says Harrsen.

Segment routing enables data centre operators to differentiate between storage and compute traffic flows even before such traffic enters the network. This allows them to better allocate their networking resources to accommodate large (elephant) storage flows compared to shorter compute (mice) flows to avoid overburdening network resources. “This is something our architecture is very good at doing,” says Harrsen.

Being programmable also enables the switch silicon to support evolving network virtualisation protocols. “Customers are altering their virtualisation protocols and this requires a pretty quick switch upgrade cycle,” says Harrsen. “This is only capable of being implemented in a programmable switch; you do not need to spin silicon to upgrade the switch.”

The network virtualisation protocols include Virtual Extensible LAN (VXLAN), Network Vitualisation using Generic Routing Encapsulation (NVGRE), and the more recent Geneve. VXLAN, for example, allows Layer-2 frames to be tunnelled through a Layer-3 IP network as well as extending the number of virtual LANs that can be supported.

The programmable nature of the Xpliant chips also means they can support the P4 programming language. The latest version of the P4 language issued in late 2016 is much more generic than previous generations of the open-source language. The P4 language can be used to program functionality into smart network interface cards - another product line of Cavium after its acquisition of QLogic - as well as switches. Cavium is considering P4 as a viable candidate alongside its own C-like compiler for its chips. 


Evolving requirements 

The XP60 and XP70 switch chips also include new hardware to address emerging requirements.

Enterprises adopting a hybrid cloud model where part of their data and applications are delivered by a cloud provider require demanding security in the form of policy enforcement. “I now have multiple domains I have to secure against,” says Harrsen. “I can have a combination of security, quality of service and service-level agreement policies I need to enforce in the network.”  This translates to more rules that need to be implemented in more places in the network.

Typically, a switch chip uses ternary content-addressable memory (TCAM) to determine how packets should be handled. Cavium has integrated a policy engine into the two new families. The policy engine is partly algorithmic-based and partly TCAM-based, resulting in a 6x-10x scaling advantage compared to the use of TCAM alone. Cavium has developed a set of hardware primitives such that the number of rules can be boosted without the incremental cost of adding more TCAM as the search engine.

Telemetry data has also been enhanced such that a switch chip can document how it is being used and expose data to analytics software that assesses how the network is being run and reallocates network resources as necessary. The chip can report how the packet queuing sub-system is behaving, for example, to identify congestion as well as the characteristics of the traffic the switch chip is encountering. “All this is associated with improving the performance of the data centre,” says Harrsen.

A programmable table controller has also been added to the chips to support denser tables. To understand why this is needed, Harrsen cites the use of containers as an alternative to virtual machines.

Virtual machines allow a server’s processor to be shared across multiple applications, each running their own operating system. A container is another way to virtualise the server’s processor resources but is ‘lighter’ than a virtual machine and does not use its own operating system. Accordingly, the server CPU can support more containers.


To get into a 5G network, you are working on it now, even though it is not going to be deployed until 2019 or 2020. We are doing proof-of-concepts with guys right now.


“There is a need for the switch chip to be able to identify a container which drives a need to have a denser table inside the chips,” says Harrsen. “We address that with the programmable table controller.”

The XP70 family supports 25 gigabit-per-second (Gbps) serialiser-deserialiser (serdes) interfaces while the XP60 supports 10Gbps serdes. 

The XP60 family is targeted at enterprises that are upgrading their networks from Gigabit Ethernet (1Gbase-T) to 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10Gbase-T). Enterprises still have a lot of Category 6 cabling deployed that are only now upgrading to 10Gbase-T. Cavium expects this market to grow over the next three years.

The XP70 addresses the build-out of 25Gbps, especially for top-of-rack switches. “The SFP+ and SFP28 [optical modules] are almost at the same price,” says Harrsen. “No one is building an SFP+ switch because they want to support 25-gigabits.” Cavium expects the market for 25-gigabit to grow substantially in the next five years.

Another market is the embedded switch/ enclosure market where the switch is embedded. “They need a lower-power solution than the existing 3.2 terabit chip,” says Harssen, The lower-power XP60 and XP70 devices meet such needs given the more limited airflow compared to a top-of-rack switch environment. 

“Ethernet switches are embedded in various chassis-based systems including blade servers,” says Wheeler. “In a blade server, the switch resides on a special blade or module.”

The devices are also being aimed at emerging cloud RAN for 5G and for GPON aggregation. The optical line terminals (OLTs) of passive optical networks also use Ethernet backplanes, says Wheeler.

“To get into a 5G network, you are working on it now, even though it is not going to be deployed until 2019 or 2020,” says Harrsen. “We are doing proof-of-concepts with guys right now.”

Cavium says the XP60 and XP70 devices - implemented in 28nm CMOS, the same as its XP80 family - are now sampling. The devices were taped out in the first quarter of this year and are going into production in the coming weeks, says Harrsen. 


The hyper-scale players have to have a long-term strategy to multi-source but this is not their actions right now. They are running so fast and so hard just to keep up with what they have.


High-end switch market

Harrsen describes the high-capacity switch chip market is an arms race, with companies like Broadcom and start-ups Barefoot Networks and Innovium chasing the large-scale data centre players with chips with switch capacities of 6.4 terabits and even 12.8 terabits. But Cavium claims only the hyper-scale data centre players are considering the very highest capacity chips, and they are only likely to be deployed in the next two years.

Cavium also points out that such players' resources developing applications and infrastructure software development are limited. They do not have the scale to multi-source switching sub-systems, says Harrsen. This benefits Broadcom, the incumbent, rather than the start-ups.

The hyper-scale players have to have a long-term strategy to multi-source but this is not their actions right now,” he says. “They are running so fast and so hard just to keep up with what they have.”

“Targeting hyper-scale operators carries great risk because your whole business hinges on winning one of these big customers,” adds Wheeler. “It’s true that Broadcom remains dominant in these data centres at present.”

Cavium may have launched the XP60 and XP70 to expand its total available market but it says it is working on its next-generation high-end switch to follow its XP80 although it is not saying when it will be available.

“This market is incredibly competitive and there is a lot of jockeying around,” says Harrsen. “We are in development and we think we are going to have a very compelling offering when we do talk about a next-generation product.” 

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