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May 11, 2011

What is a Network Processor?

By Tammy Wolf, TMCnet Web Editor

As a critical ingredient to carrier-equipment designs, a network processor functions as an integrated circuit comprising of a feature set targeted at the networking application domain. As a programmable CPU chip, a network processor possesses traits comparable to central processing units commonly found in many types of products and equipment.

Programmed to perform the packet processing supported by a device, a network processor typically accompanies several types network equipment including routers, software routers and switches; session border controllers, intrusion detection and prevention devices, network monitoring systems, and firewalls.

An array of features exists in a network processor, allowing it to serve many roles. These include computation; deep packet inspection; control processing; rapid allocation and re-circulation of packet buffers; database lookup; pattern matching of bits or bytes within packets in a packet stream; and queue management.

Multiple processing units, including CPU cores, micro-engines and dedicated hardware for compute-intensive tasks, form the architecture for network processors. Packet processing supports the processing of interleaved streams of data packets, in which a particular sequence of tasks are executed for each packet stream.

With today’s Web applications containing more content, traffic increasing exponentially and networks growing worldwide, network processors play a large role in supporting an overabundance of network applications. In fact, next-generation networks and convergence have changed the game significantly, according to network processor leader Advantech (News - Alert)

"We have seen that dedicated network processors still have a healthy role to play and, with the advances GPPs have made in terms of performance and suitability for specialized applications along with the development of hybrid SOCs, one has a multitude of choices any one of which will create an outstanding platform capable of supporting a plethora of network applications," according to an Advantech Network Application Platforms white paper.

Multicore network processors are also often used to support high-performance computing and networking applications. A single component with two or more independent actual processors or cores, they are usually found in application domains including general-purpose, embedded, digital signaling and graphics.

Tammy Wolf is a TMCnet web editor. She covers a wide range of topics, including IP communications and information technology. To read more of her articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

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