ASIC vs. Merchant Silicone – Why should you care?
An Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) is an integrated circuit (IC) customized for a particular use of which the advantage is speed. By programming the hardware integrated circuit to perform a specific function, the designer gets fast execution in a compact package unobtainable by using general computing IC. ASIC weds software to hardware into a functional device. The initial ASICs used gate array technology. Ferranti International Plc produced the first gate-array, the ULA (Uncommitted Logic Array) around 1980. An early successful commercial application was the ULA circuitry found in the 8-bit ZX81 and ZX Spectrum low-end personal computers (source: Wikipedia). Today ASICs are being used in many applications; one of which is in the networking industry.
Creating ASIC is complex and expensive. The ASIC engineer needs to take into account the hardware property of the IC and use specialized tools to design the hardware and software package. In typical implementation, the software comes with an ASIC based device which is proprietary and the customer “locks” into the solution from a particular vendor. History has shown any solution that is based on proprietary and unique design is more expensive than open-standard based platforms. In networking, ASIC based solutions are offered from main vendors such as Cisco, HP and Dell. The combination of solutions leads to lower costs. ComSource is always searching to provide high performance solutions to our customers at a lower cost which leads us to the discussion on Merchant Silicone.
Merchant Silicone is a general purpose integrated circuit that can be programmed using readily available operating systems such as Linux to do specialized work; in networking that means Bare Metal Switches. Merchant Silicone IC is available from Broadcom Trident 11 Chips or Intel. Linux based routing and switching has been available since the inception of Unix but implementation on general purpose CPUs such as the Intel x86 architecture was never fast enough to be used as a real Layer two (2) or three (3) device. With the latest version of Merchant Silicone offering speed and network operating system choices, the transition from 1Gb networks to 10Gb networks becomes very affordable.