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September - 2006 - issue > Entrepreneurship
Protocol Engineering
Keerthana Venkatesh
Friday, September 1, 2006
1999-2000. Network processor and acceleration market were talking acquisitions and standards. Intel acquired NetBoost, Lucent acquired Agere, Motorola acquired C-Port and several others followed suit. While this was on in the market, Govind Kizhepat was silently chalking out his next plan of action. After selling off his semiconductor company iCompression to GlobeSpan for $400 million, Kizhepat had a brief stint with Benchmark Capital Ventures where the idea of his next company got seeded.

With a focus on enterprise datacenter and the emerging 10Gigabite Ethernet interface (GbE), Kizhepat set up his new venture, NetXen Inc. in 2002, but went undercover, architecting radical changes at the chip level and software level to make his new generation of chips work seamlessly with existing operating systems and hardware platforms as well.

The New Paradigm
With a challenge to enhance the already invented wheel of Network Processors, NetXen went forth offering clients with solutions that can be sheaved into their server designs and solutions with significant advantages in performance and power efficiency, without altering their own designs.

Moving away from the traditional chip plate, NetXen’s 10GbE and multi-gigabit technology focuses on significant amounts of system software and firmware embedded into a full-fledged and effective programmable solution. The chip is optimized to take complete advantage over the existing system architectures.

Inherent deficiencies in traditional CPUs to handle network packets, gave way to network processors. However, network processors were found to be useful only as flow devices to sort headers in packets. But servers are needed to do much beyond just sorting packets and headers. A more stateful termination of network traffic and processing became necessary. NetXen exploited these weaknesses in network processors and traditional CPU architectures to create chips to process network I/O and security, more efficiently both in terms of performance and cost.

NetXen came out of stealth in March this year with a Protocol Processing Engine (PPE), a purpose-built architecture and the first of its kind to process protocols and security. The PPE, which is the foundation of NetXen’s intelligent NIC product portfolio, has been designed to process billions of operations in one second, with low latency and low power consumption, making it ideal for server applications. This enables solutions to handle client’s key network demands because of the transition to 10GbE.

The PPE designed by NetXen’s engineers plays a key role in enhancing the speed of processing, better CPU utilization, minimizing power consumption, and thus improving the over all system performance thereby meeting the current network demands. NetXen’s NIC is effective and efficient, and is programmed in C language while achieving wire rate throughputs, claims Kizhepat.

The key challenge and the purpose of designing a fully programmable architecture is to achieve unprecedented level of performance, while making it possible to evolve, adapt and extend to meet the ever-changing IT demands and requirements of the datacenter.
Many of today’s protocols are in a constant state of evolution from simple things like new congestion-management algorithms and quality-of-service schemes, to more extensive changes required for reducing latency and making datacenters secure. With a rise in converged IP based interconnect fabrics, NetXen went ahead to use the 10GbE adapter on the 8x PCI Express Bus, to combine networking, clustering and storage, all on a single pipe increasing comprehensive utilization of the system and network I/O bandwidth as well.

Moving straight to the latest PCI Express interface, skipping the traditional PCIX interface, NetXen utilized this to the maximum on the servers. With this single-chip solution, working on redundant XAUI (10GbE Attachment Unit Interface) ports, NetXen has wooed some of the industry’s giants like IBM and HP for their next generation server designs.

Coping with current market demands is not the only thing a corporation eyes in today’s world of competitive business in the IT arena but also has to address issues at the investment level, say hardware. Hardware Solutions, no doubt, need to be on par with the evolving technology where the IT manager has to ensure that it is not outdated but caters to the needs of the present day market where technology and investment go hand in hand. The programmability of NetXen’s Intelligent NIC addresses this issue and protects the IT manager’s hardware investment.

NetXen’s NIC solution addresses the security issues in datacenters head on. It not only supports the common security protocols such as SSL and IPsec, but also makes deployment of user authentication using access control levels, at end points easier. With NetXen’s solution: servers which are usually the end points in a datacenter, can effectively deal with Denial-of-Service attacks, which is another common form of attack today to paralyze web sites.

iThe Genesis
While entering the semiconductor business, Kizhepat had to understand that a pioneering product had to be scalable from generation to generation as well as create a technology that is applicable across multiple horizontal segments. Fighting against bigger competitors trying to make inroads in this segment, Kizhepat realized that market players were looking for a complete system-solution. And this became his focal point.

Partnering with OEMs like IBM and HP, Kizhepat found the first set of people with the same blood-group to pioneer his project. Benchmark Capital, one of the premier venture capital firms in Silicon Valley which had backed Kizhepat’s previous venture provided the initial funding, NetXen’s growing popularity found Accel Partners, DAG Ventures and Integral Capital Partners investing in the company.
Developing chips and the software from scratch, the infant team of enthusiastic engineers at NetXen were radically changing architecture both at the chip level and software level to make it work seamlessly with existing software systems and hardware platforms. Fluxing cost competitiveness and low power, they remained undercover designing the pioneering chips.

Crossing legacy hurdles
Ethernet has been in the industry for a while. But with increasing bandwidths, and lots of software and features making in-roads, Kizhepat was confident of making a difference in the domain. A chip-design veteran and an entrepreneur by heart, he had to cross the legacy hurdles to emerge victorious. And that was treading the tough path. “We had to spend long hours to learn all legacy features and then create new performance features to add value to our innovations,” says Kizhepat.

Successful entrepreneurship is all about risk-taking ability and experimenting new solutions. NetXen started focusing on smaller market segments in security and graduated to storage. But realization of a not-so-voluminous market dawned and propelled them into the complex server-oriented datacenter market.

With their first set of customers ranking among top-notch tech-companies, NetXen was further challenged to scrutinize every process. Says Kizhepat, “At the end of the day they are the ones who are going to use it first and if you can’t get them on board then you might as well not do it.” While 10 million servers sold every year, and with most of the major server OEMs adopting NetXen’s solution, Kizhepat predicts that two to three percent of them would have 10GbE connectivity to start with, and increasing to 20 percent with wide spread adoption of 10GbE in datacenters.

In the chip business where there is a compelling need to cultivate innovations and keep the lead, NetXen has reached it’s first victory goal of making a niche among bigger technology companies in the I/O space. With this first successful customer interaction, what with these big customers going gaga over NetXen’s chips, NetXen is on it’s way to making a successful business out of it’s innovative technology and solutions, smoothening up their production ramp.
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