7 Things I Learned From the IEEE Hot Interconnects Panel on SmartNICs

For the second year, I’ve had the pleasure of chairing the panel on SmartNICs. Chairing this panel is like being both an interviewer and a ringmaster. You have to ask thoughtful questions and respond to answers from six knowledgeable panelists while watching the Slack channel for real-time comments or questions that might further improve the event’s content. Recently I finished transcribing the talk and discovered the following seven gems sprinkled throughout the conversation.

7. Software today shapes the hardware of tomorrow. This is almost a direct quote from one of the speakers, but nearly half of the participants echoed it several times in different ways. One said that vertical integration means moving stuff done today in code for an Arm core into gates tomorrow.

6. DPUs are evolving into storage accelerators. Perhaps the biggest vendor mentioned adding compression, which means they are serious about soon positioning their DPU as a computational storage controller. 

5. Side-Channel Attacks (SCA) are a consideration. Only one vendor brought up this topic, but it was on the mind of several. Applying countermeasures in silicon to thwart side-channel attacks nearly doubles the number of gates for that specific cryptographic block. I understand that the countermeasures essentially consume the inverse power while also generating the inverse electromagnetic effects so that external measurements of the chip package during cryptographic functions yield a completely fuzzed result. 

4. Big Vendors are Cross-pollinating. We saw this last year with the announcement of the NVIDIA BlueField 2X, which includes a GPU on their future SmartNIC, but this appeared to be a bolt-on. NVIDIA’s roadmap didn’t integrate the GPU into the DPU until BlueField 4 some several years out. Now Xilinx, who will soon be part of AMD, is hinting at similar things. Intel, who acquired Altera several years ago, is also bolting Xeons onto their Infrastructure Processing Unit (IPU).  

3. Monterey will be the Data Center OS. VMWare wasn’t on the panel, but some panelists had a lot to say on the topic. One mentioned that the data center is the new computer. This same panelist strongly implied that the future of DPUs lies in the control plane plugging into Monterey. Playing nicely with Monterey will likely become a requirement if you want to sell into future data centers.  

2. The CPU on the DPU is fungible. The company seeking to acquire Arm mentioned they want to use a CPU micro-architecture in their DPU that they can tune. In other words, extending the Arm instruction set found in their DPU with additional instructions designed to process network packets. Now that could be interesting.

Finally, this is a nerdy plumbing type thing, but it will change the face of SmartNICs and bring enormous advantages to them is the move to Chiplets. Today ALL SmartNICs or DPUs rely on a single die in a single package, then one or perhaps two packages on a PCIe card. In the future, a single chip package will contain multiple dies, each with different functional components, and possibly fabricated at other process nodes, so…. 

1. The inflection point for chiplet adoption is integrated photonics. Chiplets becoming commonplace in DPU packages will become popular when there is a need to connect optics directly to the die in the package. This will enable very high-speed connections over extremely short distances.