Crimson Micro Packs'em In

October 28, 2003


Chip startup Crimson Microsystems Inc. plans to make a splash by collapsing most functions of a grooming or aggregation switch into one chip.

Crimson isn't revealing everything about its device, but it's clear the company aims to outdo others in the framer business by integrating most of the functions related to aggregation, grooming, and transport of data. The chip will even include a control-plane CPU (see Crimson Microsystems De-Stealths ).

Framers are a busy market, with competitors including Agere Systems Inc. (NYSE: AGR.A), Ample Communications Inc., Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC) (Nasdaq: AMCC - message board), Cypress Communications Inc., Galazar Networks Inc., Infineon Technologies AG (NYSE/Frankfurt: IFX - message board), Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC - message board), Mindspeed Technologies Inc., PMC-Sierra Inc. (Nasdaq: PMCS - message board) and TranSwitch Corp. (Nasdaq: TXCC - message board).

Essential elements of TDM switches, framers are already absorbing neighboring functions in an attempt to make telecom equipment cheaper and more compact. Crimson's device, for instance, packs a framer, a mapper, a pointer processor, and a control-plane processor.

What makes Crimson different? The inclusion of a control-plane processor is unusual. But Deepak Rana, Crimson CEO, says his key differentiator is the quality of the integration offered. "Everybody talks about this. Nobody does it," he says.

"[Crimson's] concentration is to do the things that appear in the TDM block diagrams and do them at a higher degree of integration," says Allan Armstrong, analyst with RHK Inc. He thinks Crimson is doing more than just glomming chips together, but he acknowledges that information on just how the startup's moving beyond other framers is tough to get.

Details may arise in the first half of 2004, when a family of Crimson chips called Ruby (get it? get it?) is set to sample. Volume production is slated for 2005.

About the control-plane processor: It's a step other companies have considered for years and even tried on occasion, but it hasn't proved practical.

"Everybody's using different processors, different software. It's difficult to find the correct one," says Marek Tlalka, Ample vice president of marketing [ed. note: and how ample is he?]. "If we had a major lead customer ask for a specific processor and specific interfaces, we might do it. Otherwise, you just end up putting extra cost into the device."

"A number of companies have looked at it, and it's not the technology that stopped them. It's finding the right fit," says Richard Deboer, CEO of Galazar.

Eventually, Crimson plans to roll data-plane processing into its chips as well, says Rhondalee Donovan, analyst with Semico Research Corp. "That's a trend we're seeing from several [processor] vendors," she says. "A lot of those [control vs. data plane] demarcations are going to go away in the next generation of design."

Crimson's integrated processor comes from Tensilica Inc., which, like ARM Ltd. (Nasdaq: ARMHY - message board; London: ARM), sells processor designs meant to be incorporated into others' chips. Crimson is dropping hints at having some configurability in its chips, and the Tensilica processor should help with that goal.

Crimson's seed funding came from chairman Ajaib Bhadare, a Cerent Corp. founder. Crimson picked up another $12.5 million in July 2002 from Azure Capital Partners, Clearstone Venture Partners, and Cadence Design Systems Inc.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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