SmartNICs, the Next Wave in Server Acceleration

As system architects, we seriously contemplate and research the components to include in our next server deployment. First, we break the problem being solved into its essential parts; then, we size the components necessary to address each element. Is the problem compute, memory, or storage-intensive? How much of each element will be required to craft a solution today? How much of each will be needed in three years? As responsible architects, we have to design for the future, because what we purchase today, our team will still be responsible for three years from now. Accelerators complicate this issue because they can both dramatically breath new life into existing deployed systems, or significantly skew the balance when designing new solutions.

Today foundational accelerator technology comes in four flavors: Graphical Processing Units (GPUs), Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs), Multi-Processor Systems on a Chip (MPSoCs) and most recently Smart Network Interface Cards (SmartNICs). In this market, GPUs are the 900-pound gorilla, but FPGAs have made serious market progress the past few years with significant deployments in Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure. MPSoCs, and now SmartNICs, blend many different computational components into a single chip package, often utilizing a mix of ARM cores, GPU cores, Artificial Intelligence (AI) engines, FPGA logic, Digital Signal Processors (DSPs), as well as memory and network controllers. For now, we’re going to skip MPSoCs and focus on SmartNICs.

SmartNICs place acceleration technology at the edge of the server, as close as possible to the network. When computational processing of network intense workloads can be accomplished at the network edge, within a SmartNIC, it can often relieve the host CPU of many mundane networking tasks. Normal server processes require that the host CPU spend, on average, 30% of it’s time managing network traffic, this is jokingly referred to as the data center tax. Imagine how much more you could get out of a server if just that 30% were freed up, and what if more could be made available?

SmartNICs that leverage ARM cores and or FPGA logic cells exist today from a growing list of companies like Broadcom, Mellanox, Netronome, and Xilinx. SmartNICs can be designed to fit into a Software-Defined Networking (SDN) architecture. They can accelerate tasks like Network Function Virtualization (NVF), Open vSwitch (OvS), or overlay network tunneling protocols like Virtual eXtensible LAN (VXLAN) and Network Virtualization using Generic Routing Encapsulation (NVGRE). I know, networking alphabet soup, but the key here is that complex routing, and packet encapsulation tasks can be handed off from the host CPU to a SmartNIC. In virtualized environments, significant amounts of host CPU cycles can be consumed by these tasks. While they are not necessarily computationally intensive, they can be volumetrically intense. With datacenter networks moving to 25GbE and 50GbE, it’s not uncommon for host CPUs to process millions of packets per second. This processing is happening today in the kernel or hypervisor networking stack. With a SmartNIC packet routing and encapsulation can be handled at the edge, dramatically limiting the impact on the host CPU.

If all you were looking for from a SmartNICs is to offload the host CPU from having to do networking, thereby saving the datacenter networking tax of 30%, this might be enough to justify their expense. Most of the SmartNIC product offerings from the companies mentioned above run in the $2K to $4K price range. So suppose you’re considering a SmartNIC that costs $3K, with the proper software, and under load testing, you’ve found that it returns 30% of your host CPU cycles, what is the point at which the ROI makes sense? A simplistic approach would suggest that $3K divided by 30% yields a system cost of $10K. So if the cost of your servers is north of $10K, then adding a $3K SmartNIC is a wise decision, but wait, there’s more.

SmartNICs can also handle many complex tasks like key-value stores, encryption, and decryption (IPsec, MACsec, soon even SSL/TLS), next-generation firewalls, electronic trading, and much more. Frankly, the NIC industry is at an inflection point similar to when video cards evolved into GPUs to support the gaming and virtualization market. While Sony coined the term GPU with the introduction of the Playstation in 1994, it was Nvidia five years later in 1999 who popularized the GPU with the introduction of the GeForce 256. I doubt that in the mid-1990s, while Nvidia was designing the NV10 chip, the heart of the GeForce 256, that their engineers were also pondering how it might be used in high-performance computing (HPC) applications a decade later that had nothing to do with graphic rendering. Today we can look at all the ground covered by GPU and FPGA accelerators over the past two decades and quickly see a path forward for SmartNICs where they may even begin offloading the primary computational tasks of a server. It’s not inconceivable to envision a server with a half dozen SmartNICs all tasked with encoding video, or acting as key-value stores, web caches, or even trading stocks on various exchanges. I can see a day soon where the importance of SmartNIC selection will eclipse server CPU selection when designing a new solution from the ground up.

One thought on “SmartNICs, the Next Wave in Server Acceleration

  1. Thanks for the article. I have a query. For an IPSec based accelerator (for example), what’s the difference between using an ASIC based crypto offload engine (like TOE) and a programmable Smart NIC?

    What is the need for the SmartNIC to be ‘Programmable’? Is it only to accommodate continuously evolving technology?

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