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Network processors (NPs) are emerging as a cost effective network element technology that can be more readily updated and evolved than custom hardware or ASIC-based designs. Moreover, NPs promise support for run-time reconfiguration of low-level networking software. However, it is notoriously difficult to develop software for NPs because of their complex design, architectural heterogeneity, and demanding performance constraints. In this paper we present a runtime component-based approach to programming NPs. The approach promotes conceptual uniformity and design portability across a wide variety of NP types while simultaneously exploiting hardware assists that are specific to individual NPs. To show how our approach can be applied in a wide range of types of NPs we characterise the design space of NPs and demonstrate the applicability of our concepts to the various classes identified. Then, as a detailed case study, we focus on programming the Intel IXP1200 NP. This demonstrates that our approach can be effectively applied, e.g. in terms of performance, in a demanding real-world NP environment.