Programmable network processors, sometimes called network processing units (NPUs), can process data traffic fast enough to keep up with a high-speed connection but also can be upgraded through software to support new standards or carry out new services.
As NPUs mature and decline in price, and as service providers shift their investment toward the edge of the network, network chip makers like Motorola are rolling out parts geared towards lower-speed connection areas.
The C-3e is designed for access equipment at the edge of the network and can process packets at a rate of 3Gbps, according to Motorola. The chip may be used in media gateways and cable modem termination systems. It can also feature in digital subscriber line (DSL) access gear, multiservice access platforms and even equipment for 3G and 2.5G wireless data networks, according to the company.
The architecture of the chip allows makers of access routers and other devices to build in support for almost any protocol they want to offer customers.
Service providers are looking to differentiate themselves with specialised services such as voice over IP that require guaranteed quality of service, as well as continuing to provide existing technologies such as Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) and Frame Relay," said Larry Walker, vice-president of strategy for Motorola's networking and computing systems group.
"Network processors, especially ones that have pretty rich sets of functionality, turn out to be very useful," Walker said.
The programmable chips will make it possible for service providers to set up new services for customers relatively quickly and easily, Walker explained.
The C-3e joins the C-5e, a 5Gbps chip currently shipping, in Motorola's C-Port Network Processor Family. Device manufacturers can migrate software relatively easily from one chip to the other, executives said. Software for both chips can be written using the C language, they said.
Motorola is still working on moving up in speed, developing a 10Gbps NPU that will have more intelligence as well as greater speed, said Bob Gohn, vice-president of marketing. It should come out next year, he said.
Motorola's decision to expand its focus into lower-speed connections is part of a broader trend in which NPUs are becoming more economically feasible at the edge - where their flexibility is even more valuable than at the core, according to Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at The Linley Group. Intel was a pioneer in that space with its IXP1200 processor, he said.
"Intel has demonstrated that NPUs can be very useful and popular closer to the edge of the network," Gwennap said. "The guys who started higher are starting to step down."