Programmable chips for data center switches catch fire with 20% annual growth

Loihi chips
Programmable chips for data center switches are expected to double market share in 2023, rising to 13%, while off-the-shelf chips maintain the majority at 62%. (Intel)

Data center Ethernet switch vendors are reducing use of proprietary and custom chips. At the same time, interest in programmable silicon is on the rise and will double in market share in the next four years, according to a recent forecast by IHS Markit.

Programmable switch chips will make up 13% of the overall market for Ethernet switch chip shipments in 2023, up from 6% in 2018, IHS said. Meanwhile, propriety/custom silicon will drop to about 25%, down from 38% in 2018.

A third category of merchant silicon, or off-the-shelf chips, will remain the majority of switch chips shipped during the entire period up to 2023. In that year, merchant silicon will reach 62 % of all silicon shipped, up from 56% in 2018.

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Noting the emergence of programmable chips, IHS noted that chip hardware is evolving and remaining relevant. “Between 2018 and 2023, we expect growth in data center Ethernet switch data-plane forwarding silicon units to be driven by programmable silicon, rising at a 20% five-year compound annual growth rate,” IHS said. In 2018, about 1.4 million total switch chips shipped, which will increase to more than 1.6 million in 2023.

“It’s true that software is still eating the world, but hardware has revived and has even found new life thanks to technology improvements in silicon and new open designs from organization like the Open Compute Project Foundation,” said Devan Adams, principal analyst at IHS Markit, in a statement.

Companies like Intel and Nvidia are seeing the trend and have quickly acquired talent, intellectual property and technology from innovative data center market companies.

Intel announced in June plans to acquire Barefoot Networks, which makes programmable chips. Intel will combine its CPU silicon business with Barefoot’s data-plane switch chips. Barefoot also has application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) to provide a data center networking portfolio for enterprise, telco and cloud markets.

Nvidia in March said it would buy Mellanox for $6.9 billion giving it access to networking switch and storage equipment that will be combined with Nvidia’s graphics processing business.

Arista purchased Metamako in September 2018 for access to its networking products that include Xilinx field-programmable gate arrays used in products such as Arista’s 7130L Series.

The IHS analysis tracked chip needs for more than 25 switch vendors including Cisco, Arista, Juniper, Nokia, VMware, Huawei and ZTE.

RELATED: Close to 290M multi-gig Ethernet switch ports to ship over next five years—report

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