Intel Acquires Barefoot Networks and Broadcom Releases Trident4 ASIC


LightCounting Releases a Research Note on Switching News


This week’s news brought two important announcements in the world of Ethernet switching silicon. These ASICs are at the heart of most networks that need high-speed optical modules. “The Incumbent” [i.e. Broadcom] announced an important new product and Intel announced an interesting acquisition in this same space.

Ethernet switch silicon has fallen into two categories: proprietary silicon (e.g. Cisco) and merchant silicon. To date, Broadcom has dominated the merchant switching silicon market. Switch companies such as Arista Networks base their ability to stay at the leading edge by using merchant switch ASICs from most any merchant supplier.  Even Cisco offers two lines of ToR switches.  One uses Broadcom ASICs and the other uses proprietary Cisco ASICs.
Broadcom built their reputation on 1G and 10G switching silicon in their Trident line in the enterprise space.  Two years ago they claimed 100 million ports operating with Trident-based switches. They parlayed their market strength by leading the market in switch ASICs with 25Gb/s and 50Gb/s SerDes with their Tomahawk line of products.  A high percentage of hyperscale data centers are running with Tomahawk-based switches.
Having huge success means you become a big target and Broadcom now has competition to their Tomahawk ASICs:

  • Mellanox has had success with their Spectrum Ethernet switch ASIC and they offer bare silicon or complete Ethernet switches

  • Marvell/Cavium offers their XPliant® Ethernet switch ASICs which have been chosen by Arista Networks and Brocade [now Extreme Networks]. Arista Networks also uses ASICs from Broadcom and others. But Marvell had their in-house developed Prestera switches which are successful at slower speeds and after acquiring Cavium, they shut down the XPliant® line.

  • Innovium, another startup [with personnel from both Broadcom and Marvell/Cavium] announced their new line of switch ASICs with 50G PAM4 SerDes just prior to OFC 2016. They announced sampling of their 12.8Tb/s switch silicon at the Open Compute Conference in March, 2018. Various 400G demonstrations at OFC 2019 used Innovium switches and they got a design win at Cisco in their Nexus 3000 line.

So should we be surprised to learn this week that Intel will be acquiring Barefoot networks? 

Barefoot Networks came along in 2013 as a startup with Google, Alibaba, Dell, HPE and Tencent among their investors. They sampled a 6.4Tb switch at the end of 2016. It can support 65 100GbE ports. Its scale is similar to Broadcom’s Tomahawk2 with 260 25Gb/s SerDes. Edgecore Networks, a white box switch maker, had made the Facebook Wedge 100BF‑65X switch per an Open Compute specification using ASICs from Barefoot. With strong features for programmability, Barefoot has made a series of wins, though mostly in the lower-volume edge of the networks. Arista 7170 switches having 64 ports of 100GbE use Barefoot switch ASICs. Even Cisco uses Barefoot ASICs in their Cisco Nexus 3000 Series. Barefoot was the first switch ASIC company using 7nm CMOS.

In 2011, Intel attempted to jump into the one space in computers and networking they didn’t serve, switching silicon, by acquiring Fulcrum Microsystems. For whatever reasons, that never made Intel a player in datacenter switching. The acquisition of Barefoot Networks by Intel means we will have two huge companies that offer Ethernet switching. It gives them the opportunity they thought they had with Fulcrum. The timing seems right, since Barefoot is still technically a startup, and gives Intel a do-over in switching.

Slowing spending of the Cloud companies and demand for semiconductor IC probably influenced Barefoot’s decision. Broadcom reported quarterly earnings on June 13 and reduced forecast for the rest of 2019 quoting trade war and very nervous customers. Intel and many other IC suppliers reduced 2018 forecast earlier this year, reducing expectations for a strong second half of 2019. Upcoming Quarterly Market Forecast report will discuss the latest financial results and guidance for the current quarter across the industry supply chain.

The acquisition also fits well with Intel’s long term strategy to co-package optical engines with ASICs. Intel’s in-house silicon photonics (SiP) technology is the best platform for these future opto-electronic systems in a package. Intel dominates the CPU market and acquired Altera’s FPGA’s business a few years ago. All these ASICs may benefit from co-packaged optics in the future, but performance of switching ASICs is likely to improve the most from this new approach. Cisco acquired Luxtera earlier this year with an objective to use their (SiP) technology for integration with ASICs. Broadcom has internal manufacturing of GaAs and InP optical chips, which can also be used for co-packaging, but it may consider to bring SiP technology in house as well to keep up with the competition. Progress in Silicon Photonics is analyzed in the recently published Integrated Optical Devices Report.

For its part, Broadcom made important news this week with their announcement of the Trident 4 series of Ethernet switch ASICs for the enterprise IT market. This market is not shrinking despite the roaring success of the hyperscale cloud players. Many eyes are on the rollout of switches and datacenter networks using Tomahawk 3 ASICs to enable 200GbE, 400GbE and high-density 100GbE. Historically, the enterprise space lags by a few years, but this is changing. Enterprises are quickly rolling out 100GbE and using the Trident 3 switch ASICs introduced two years ago. A 100 million-port customer base waiting for upgrades is a compelling story.

Clients can access full text of the research note at:

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