Standard interconnect approved for network gear

Future networking devices such as switches and routers could meet new user demands more quickly and cost less after the completion of the Advanced Switching Interconnect (ASI) specification.

That is based on the emerging PCI Express interconnect for PCs and servers and is designed to make building a networking product more like creating a new computer, with processors and other components from third parties that can all communicate with each other in the same language.

Currently, most networking vendors use proprietary interconnects, missing out on the competition and economies of scale in the PC and server businesses, initiative marketing manager at Intel, Allyson Klein, said.

Sample quantities of chips using ASI should begin shipping early in 2005, and boxes built with them were likely to hit the market later that year, Intel officials said.

The ability to mix and match parts without the need to create proprietary interconnects could cut the development process on a typical networking device, now often two years or more, down to one year, Klein said.

That means boxes with innovative capabilities could get into the hands of enterprises more quickly.

Even more ASI-based gear is likely to end up in the networks of carriers and Internet service providers, who may be able to offer new kinds of services with them, according to Rajeev Kumar, advanced switching initiatives manager at Intel and president of the ASI Special Interest Group, which created the specification.

A complementary protocol, called PI-8, could even allow for networking chassis that accommodated computing and storage modules along with communications blades, he said.

ASI, along with the Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture (ATCA) specification for designing a full equipment chassis, could have a big impact on carriers and even enterprises over the next several years, analyst at In-Stat/MDR, Eric Mantion, said.

ASI is one of the interconnect technologies supported by the ATCA standard.

Just about any piece of gear for wired or wireless carrier networks could be built using ATCA, and standardisation could save carriers money and give them more flexibility in providing services, he said.

For example, carriers today had to keep a different kind of fan in stock for every type of equipment they used, Mantion said.

With ATCA gear, fans could be standardised and keeping those inventories would be easier. More importantly, being able to combine communications and computing hardware in the same chassis could make a carrier’s infrastructure less expensive, more reliable and easier to manage.

Mantion used as an example a switch with an integrated server that could form the basis of a secure data service which is run from the carrier’s central office.

“All the traffic that comes in to the Gigabit Ethernet switch from the outside world might get run through the side of the switch that’s a blade server and is running antivirus software,” he said.

One thing Mantion didn’t expect was for the high-end network equipment business to become a commodity market like the PC industry.

Although some elements of hardware would be interchangeable, products would still be distinguished by software and by the details of hardware design, he said. For instance, although an ATCA module from one vendor would physically fit into another vendor’s chassis slot, it might not be fully functional.