Until recently, Vitesse Semiconductor saw its core market as being the carrier Ethernet market, particularly what it calls the IP edge, which is anything from base stations to picocells to backhaul microwave/milliwave small cells, as well as routers and switches in the aggregation network. However, the company has noticed that there is demand for its chips and reference designs in the industrial segment, as that market is migrating from proprietary protocols toward Ethernet, and Vitesse has been able to provide timing and low power solutions that fit market needs.
Digitimes spoke with Vitesse CTO Martin Nuss just before Computex to discuss the industrial space, which he describes as the part of the IoT (Internet of Things) market where revenue can be found today.
Q: How has your work in the telecom business brought you into the industrial market?
A: We noticed that there was demand for our chips and devices in the industrial segment because we provide standardized Ethernet solutions. What I mean is that there are a ton of protocols on the industrial side of the market. There is the EtherCAT (Ethernet for Control Automation Technology) fieldbus system. There is Profinet for industrial automation. There are a number of proprietary or semi-proprietary busses out there. The interesting thing is that many of them are still using Ethernet at the physical layer, but then they say Ethernet doesn't do x or y, such as providing ring protection or delivering a solution that is more deterministic - and Ethernet doesn't have that. So they put some proprietary features in there to make it more deterministic in the delivery of packets.
But on the carrier side of the telecom industry, we've already worked out a lot of these technologies and implemented them into our Ethernet solutions. We have ring protection and we know how to do timing, which is a key aspect of deterministic Ethernet. We have resolved the reliable delivery of packets in the carrier space over the last year or two, so now customers on the industrial side are realizing they no longer have to only deal with proprietary solutions. They can take advantage of the ecosystem and chip designs that were developed on the telecom side. So, you are seeing increased scale and more new players developing more standardized solutions rather than essentially having 10 little companies delivering solutions at 10x the price.
Q: What are some of the key applications in the industrial space that you are targeting?
A: Some key areas are transportation, energy and factory automation. For example, if you look at a typical factory automation application these days, pretty much everything is wired by Ethernet, but as I said previously, sometimes there is proprietary stuff placed on top. They used to have proprietary protocols on top to get resiliency. If one thing fails, some other things come up but that is all being done by standard Ethernet today.
Q: You also spoke about determinism in Ethernet being a key requirement in the industrial space. Can you speak more about that?
A: What I am describing is a system that is predictable and consistent; one that is in sync. And the key is timing. Take a look at high-speed manufacturing lines, such as a high-speed printing press. There are hundreds of motors that need to be synchronized very tightly. This goes for any high speed manufacturing line in general. You have to synchronize events within nanosecond or sub-nanosecond accuracy. If one of them is out of sync, the whole system becomes a disaster.
The key to having deterministic Ethernet is the Precision Time Protocol (PTP) or IEEE 1588 timing. For 1588 timing, you send out time stamped packets and there is a grand master clock that puts a time stamp into a 1588 packet (which is an Ethernet packet) and it gets transported through the network. At the slave, the time is determined through a two way handshake protocol between the master and the slave.
Previously, problems in a typical packet network were introduced at the hub. You ended up getting packet delay variations or maybe asymmetry. The 1588 protocol, however, relies on symmetry between upstream and downstream and much of this has been worked out in the telecom world, where two new clock classes – the bounded clock and the transparent clock – were implemented in 1588 aware routers and switches to keep errors to a minimum. The first application that actually did that in Ethernet was wireless mobile backhaul. Timing over networks is very time sensitive and while there are no specifications in the ITU for this, base stations have to be synchronized to within a half hundred nanosecond accuracy for LTE, TD-LTE, LTE TDD and LTE Advanced. In the smart energy area, the IEEE has defined a power profile that is fairly similar and which leads to no more than 50ns timing errors. And now we are seeing timing becoming more important in factory automation.
It is kind of ironic that 1588 is increasingly being worked into Ethernet. Vitesse comes out of the telecom side which first developed under synchronized SONET/SDH networks where everything was on the same clock but then the whole market moved to Ethernet where everything is packet based and queued. Now the Ethernet world is going back to where they want to have every network element accurately timed down to a nanosecond. The rest of the deterministic equation, where you need to know what time it is so you can determine whether you have to send a packet out within x amount of microseconds, whatever the requirement is, and get it all lined up, is done through timing.
Q: Vitesse also speaks about power efficiency; this seems strange when speaking about factory automation. What is your message there?
A: Well, lower power means lower costs. But what we are also talking about is being in sync with customer needs and providing the right solution. For example, our main competitors in this segment are companies like Broadcom and Marvell. With their product offerings, solutions scale up evenly, so you can go with a solution that has lower bandwidth, a lower port count and a lower feature portfolio. If you need more features such as service delivery, 1588 timing, security, quality of service (QoS), you need to buy into an architecture that is much higher in capacity and much higher in power consumption. Our strategy is to focus on lower- to medium-range capacity; for example below 100Gbit, but supplied with the full feature set, typically beyond what the competitors offer in terms of feature sets. That is why we end up being much more power efficient without making any compromises on feature sets.
And this works for us because in the industrial space you don't need to be applying an 80-100Gbit solution to a 10Gbit problem. For example, industrial applications like printing presses, robotics and high-speed manufacturing feature solutions typically have 3-5 ports of Gb Ethernet. So you are talking about a requirement of less than 10Gbit Ethernet capacity. The industry is a little overpowered from the capacity/feature perspective. Customers don't want to pay for a 48 port switch at 15 watts when they can get a 6-8 port from Vitesse at much lower cost and much lower power with a better feature set and at a tenth of the power.
Q: You mentioned how Vitesse is helping firms in the industrial space scale. Can you speak a bit about how that is affecting Taiwan ODMs?
A: If you look at the enterprise turnkey model, a lot of low-end enterprise switches from the big vendors are being manufactured by Taiwan ODMs, with those solutions basically being Broadcom and Vitesse reference designs running slightly modified software to fit into the Hewlett-Parker (HP) or some other vendor's ecosystem. This business model makes sense on the industrial side as well, where ODMs partner with Vitesse on the design. They then get their hardware certified to run in rugged conditions while having the ability to slightly modify the API layer to tailor the solution to the end customer.
Vitesse CTO Martin Nuss