A network processor is an integrated circuit which has a feature set specifically targeted at the networking application domain.
Network processors are typically software programmable devices and would have generic characteristics similar to general purpose central processing units that are commonly used in many different types of equipment and products.
In modern telecommunications networks, information (voice, video, data) is transferred as packet data (termed packet switching) which is in contrast to older telecommunications networks that carried information as analog signals such as in the public switched telephone network (PSTN) or analog TV/Radio networks. The processing of these packets has resulted in the creation of integrated circuits (IC) that are optimised to deal with this form of packet data. Network processors have specific features or architectures that are provided to enhance and optimise packet processing within these networks.
Network processors have evolved into ICs with specific functions. This evolution has resulted in more complex and more flexible ICs being created. The newer circuits are programmable and thus allow a single hardware IC design to undertake a number of different functions, where the appropriate software is installed.
Network processors are used in the manufacture of many different types of network equipment such as:
In the generic role as a packet processor, a number of optimised features or functions are typically present in a network processor, which include:
In order to deal with high data-rates, several architectural paradigms are commonly used:
Additionally, traffic management, which is a critical element in L2-L3 network processing and used to be executed by a variety of co-processors, has become an integral part of the network processor architecture, and a substantial part of its silicon area ("real estate") is devoted to the integrated traffic manager. Modern network processors are also equipped with low-latency high-throughput on-chip interconnection networks optimized for the exchange of small messages among cores (few data words). Such networks can be used as an alternative facility for the efficient inter-core communication aside of the standard use of shared memory.
Using the generic function of the network processor, a software program implements an application that the network processor executes, resulting in the piece of physical equipment performing a task or providing a service. Some of the applications types typically implemented as software running on network processors are: