It's one thing to send data hurtling along a wire at gigabit speed. It's quite another to apply policies to packets moving that fast.
The benefits of using Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASIC) in network devices are well documented. After all, ASICs are behind the dramatic drop in prices and the increase in speed of LAN switches and network interface cards (NIC) over the past few years.
Now, vendors are starting to extend the technology to every aspect of networking.
"It's really a speed thing," says Michael Speyer, program manager at The Yankee Group, a market research firm in Boston. "Firewalls are going in front of Web server farms, they're getting bombarded with megabytes and megabytes of traffic, and they can't keep up." ASICs can handle the speeds, and mass production makes them inexpensive enough to build into firewalls and other net gear, he says.
RapidStream, a San Jose, Calif., start-up, is planning to debut early next year with chips designed to enforce policies on networks. The chips will ensure that high-priority traffic gets through a network quickly; the chips will also govern access to net resources. RapidStream will sell the chips to equipment vendors to be included in routers, firewalls, switches and NICs.
"Firewall software can interpret policy, but at a dog-slow speed," says Vince Liu, president and CEO of RapidStream.
RapidStream isn't alone. Mountain View, Calif.-based NetBoost by year-end will ship a hardware "policy engine" composed of a custom ASIC and other function-specific chips. Software developers can adapt their policy software to take advantage of the specialized, high-speed design to make firewalls or intrusion detectors.
Similarly, NetScreen Technologies of Santa Clara, Calif., this month begins shipping a box for performing firewall functions and encrypting data for transport over virtual private networks. The NetScreen-1000 will be able to encrypt using the Digital Encryption Standard at gigabit rates.
What is causing this revolution in the way network hardware is being built? Partly, it's the demand for products that can keep up with Fast Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet. Firewalls and other network gear are often built atop PC processors. "People are hitting the limitations of what the software can do in a PC," says Richard Hanke, NetScreen's marketing director.
But there are also technological advances at work. Hanke says there are tools available that vendors use to test ASIC designs before any processors are manufactured, keeping the development cycle to six months.
Plus, most ASIC vendors are making chips with memory embedded in the chip. This helps erase one of the traditional limitations of ASICs: inflexibility. In the past, once an ASIC was created, it couldn't be changed. Now, ASIC start-ups are designing memory into chips so companies can update the chips with new policies.
In recent years, ASICs have been used in basic LAN switches, Layer 3 switches and network cards. In those products, flexibility is not an issue because more enterprises have standardized on Ethernet and IP.
One effect of growing ASICs usage has been that the prices for ASICs and the devices employing them have plummeted. For example, hubs and NICs have become commodities. Some of the least expensive 10/100M bit/sec Ethernet switches cost less than $100 per port, down from about $250 per port just a year ago.
A group planning to go public early next year is trying to take this commoditization to its logical conclusion. The group, called Common Switch Interface, plans to define a standard method for communicating between elements within a switch. Specifically, the standard will designate a method for communicating between a switching fabric and microchips tailored to networking (see story, left).
With silicon getting less expensive and making its way into every part of networking, NIC vendor Phobos of Salt Lake City is seeking to push Layer 3 switching technology to the desktop. Phobos sees an opportunity to put routing and switching functions into ASICs on the NIC, says Rick White, the company's CEO.
Instead of centralizing those functions in the middle of the network, in the future, the edge devices would have all the intelligence, and the middle of the network would be turned into "a glorified patch panel," he says. But White acknowledges this vision of the network is still years away from reality.
In any case, the proliferation of microchips in network hardware means that speed won't be an issue. Your bottleneck might be in a WAN connection or in a computer system - but it shouldn't be in the LAN.
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