Network processors are software programmable devices with architectural features designed for packet processing. They handle a wide array of tasks needed to support network systems, such as routing, compression, authentication, and protocol conversion. Network processors perform protocol conversion, Internet protocol (IP) routing, multi-protocol label switching (MPLS), and traffic shaping. Protocol conversion is the process of converting signals from one protocol to another so that computers with different protocols can communicate with each other. IP routing is the process of determining the disposition of each packet that a network router handles. MPLS is a quality-of-service labeling standards that Internet service providers (ISP) use to manage different kinds of data streams based on priority and service plan.
Network processor design is an emerging field with numerous challenges and opportunities. Network processors are one of the most innovative areas of microprocessor design, handling packet data that is fundamentally different from running Windows applications. Various network processor chip (NPU) devices use techniques such as multi-threading, multiple processors, very long instruction word (VLIW), embedded dynamic random access memory (DRAM), single instruction/multiple data (SIMD), and new architectures to meet the increasing demands of high-end networking devices. Organized to facilitate and accelerate the development of next-generation networking and telecommunications products, the Network Processing Forum (NPF) establishes standard specifications of network processing technologies for the industry.
Network processors are used with both local area networks (LAN) and wide area networks (WAN). A LAN supplies networking capability to a group of computers in close proximity to each other such as in an office, school, or home. A WAN is a data communications network that spans a large geographic area to connect multiple smaller networks, such as LANs (local area networks).
Network processors may not provide solutions for all networking applications. Network processors share characteristics with many different implementation choices. An example of advanced network communications and processing architectures for avionics applications is the ARINC packet. This packet receives weather observations from aircrafts and reformats and distributes them to the National Weather Service (NWS) standard avionic busses.