We’re now entering the golden age for merchant silicon, custom application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) and platforms in the data center Ethernet switch and router markets. During the next five years, the market will undergo at least two rapid product transitions in order to meet the additional bandwidth demands of cloud providers. While the endpoint is fairly clear: single lane 100Gbit/s ports for server access and ubiquitous low-cost 400Gbit/s spines, cores, and data center interconnect platforms; the journey for many vendors to get there is complicated as ASICs move from 3.2Tbit/s to 12.8Tbit/s in less than five years.

Merchant silicon will play an important role in this journey and for the first time will be used widely beyond the top-of-rack switch. Merchant silicon is now on feature parity with custom ASICs all the way through the core/router layer of the network. At the same time, cloud customer demands will decrease the life cycle of products originally intended to last decades in telco service providers.

Fighting for the Core

It’s very clear that the next big battle in networking will occur in the data center core between traditional switch and routing vendors at both a system level and a silicon level. This will be a critical time for many vendors as the shift of workloads to the cloud fundamentally means that many existing markets will stop growing and begin to contract significantly.

If we look back historically, Google has been using merchant silicon for almost a decade in its networks. In that decade of time, others have joined Google and now for the leaf/spine or top-of-rack/aggregation layer of the network, merchant silicon is the dominant solution for customers in both the cloud and enterprise. 

As we move into the core of the network, custom ASICs become far more common. But that trend is undergoing a major shift. Merchant silicon is now capable of addressing the core market, and vendor platforms with custom ASICs are being designed to be more cloud-like with better scale and agility.

Custom Silicon Vs. Merchant Silicon

Broadcom launched the first salvo in the battle for data center switching a decade ago and now, with its Jericho-based chip, is moving upmarket. With Jericho, merchant silicon took the first step towards competing with high-end core switch and router ASICs. We expect that during the next five years we will see a fierce battle of custom silicon (Cisco, Huawei, Juniper, and Nokia) and merchant silicon (Barefoot, Broadcom, Cavium, Innovium, Marvell, and Mellanox). What is not certain is whether traditional vendors will double down on silicon, like Nokia did with the FP4 silicon and router announcement earlier in June, or whether they will move towards a merchant silicon architecture. Either way, we expect cloud customers to treat these boxes as commodity solutions which will compress the lifecycle considerably over what they used to be when deployed in enterprise and traditional service provider networks.

The compressed lifecycle will cause merchant silicon and custom ASICs to refresh more quickly to keep pace with the competition and a demand for lower price points. The different silicon options will also allow for niche options as well. It is important to note that the large cloud providers have more than one data center topology and more than one network to connect them. Therefore, with all the different options, we might see not only traditional multi-vendor options being common in the large cloud and service provider accounts, but also unique vendor offerings in niche areas of a cloud provider.  

Let Battle Commence …

In terms of time frame, 3.2Tbit/s shipments started in late 2015, but took until the end of 2016 to take off significantly. 6.4Tbit/s fabrics are shipping in 2017. We’ve had two 12.8Tbit/s announcements so far in 2017 and expect more by the end of the year. We’ll begin to see shipments of these products next year and the design wins will be very important to gauge success. Customers are not favoring incumbency as much as they have in the past, instead requiring silicon and system offering to plug directly into the controllers the customer has standardized on. This combination of silicon, vendor offerings, and rapid transitions will create an extremely vibrant market over the next several years.