Broadcom is sampling its first 7-nm network switch chip. In tandem with the Trident 4, the company released as open-source a new network programming language in an effort to stave off competition from startup Barefoot Network’s P4.

The Trident 4 family, which spans switches with 2- to 128-terabits-per-second aggregate bandwidth, is aimed at business networks that need a variety of management features. The 21 billion transistor chip packs up to 256 50G PAM4 SerDes and manages up to 5 billion packets per second in a single chassis.

So far, Broadcom continues to dominate silicon for network switching, despite efforts of at least three startups who entered the field in the last few years. Barefoot has captured some design wins, thanks in part to rising interest in software-defined networks, but systems using its first-generation 16-nm Tofino chips are just now starting to ship.

“No one has really made a significant dent so far” in Broadcom’s share, estimated at 80% last year of the $3 billion merchant Ethernet switch market (excluding Cisco ASICs), said Bob Wheeler, a networking analyst for The Linley Group. “Barefoot has gotten traction with Arista and Cisco designs and there’s a lot of talk about Google using them, but it’s not clear how broadly the systems are being deployed.”

Trident 4 NPLB

Trident 4 can be programmed with existing APIs or a new open language. (Image: Broadcom)

Broadcom’s Trident 4 “narrows the apps where Barefoot will have traction,” he said. “The main difference is [that] Barefoot’s chips are customer-programmable, while the Trident 4 is more focused on letting OEMs program them.”

Barefoot’s P4 matches table lookups to corresponding actions. Broadcom’s generically named Network Programming Language (NPL) can bundle multiple table lookups and other features into more complex inputs and actions, the company claimed.

Broadcom will provide tools to support NPL on both its Trident 4 and Jericho 2 chips now sampling. Other companies are free to port the code to their architectures.

NPL will be free with its specs and open-source code for a front-end compiler and behavioral simulator published online. At press time, Broadcom was still determining which open-source license it will use.

Existing Trident OEMs include Arista, Dell, Huawei, and Juniper, at least some of whom are expected to adopt NPL, though they may transition gradually from using existing APIs. China’s Tencent also expressed interest in NPL, and an infrastructure manager from LinkedIn expressed support for the chip.

In addition, Trident 4 supports runtime programming for select features such as responding to denial-of-service attacks, tracing and dropping packets, and setting criteria for load balancing. The chip supports both in- and out-of-band telemetry.

Trident 4 is pin-compatible with Tomahawk 3, Broadcom’s 12.8T switch launched in late 2017 and aimed at hyperscalers. The two chips have similar power consumption and thermal requirements.

The chip is among the first batch of 7-nm devices from Broadcom. A spokesman described the node as “a heavy lift” compared to 16 nm due to larger design databases and more stringent design and timing rules. However, it did deliver density and power improvements, he said.