Programmable NICs Will Empower the Future of the Network
Networks are under unprecedented demand when it comes to performance and uptime. This is largely due to the rise of emerging technologies like AI, cybersecurity deployment, hyperscale architectures and cloud services – but it’s also been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic because people are on the network more than ever before.
This is where SmartNICs, and specifically programmable SmartNICs, can play a key role. Organizations that use SmartNICs are reaping the benefits of this increased demand due to their ability to accelerate traffic and boost agility through programmability. SmartNICs will play an even more important role in networks as they evolve and expand.
Data center network traffic is increasing at exponential rates, due largely to cloud, edge, 5G mobile and IoT. Combined, these unique mega trends are radically changing the way networks are built. The networks that underpin these new models all share common attributes of moving to open, standard, low-cost server platforms to deliver the majority of applications and services. As the demand for servers explodes, so does the number of network interface controllers (NICs) used to connect them. This creates the need for a new class of NIC, a programmable SmartNIC.
There are a number of factors driving the demand for SmartNICs. There’s the increase in performance requirements, for one thing, including throughput PPS and Gbps. There’s also lower latency for real-time applications and services in edge computing, and the need for improved security in a distributed cloud and edge network design.
Other factors include the need for:
- higher numbers of sessions and flows for more users and applications
- feature velocity to keep pace with the speed of innovation in software-defined networks
- operation, orchestration and management for a massive number of network elements at scale
How SmartNICs can help
The increasing sophistication of attacks and the coinciding growth in network traffic are placing enormous strain on the central processing units (CPUs). One of the ways these systems are adapting is by offloading more of the packet processing workload from the CPU to an FPGA-based SmartNIC.
SmartNICs boost server performance in cloud and private data centers, through offloading networking processing workloads and tasks from server CPUs. It’s not a new concept, but it’s being driven by the expansion in data center network traffic. In fact, according to the analysts at Omdia, deployment of programmable NICs is seeing significant growth. They estimate that programmable NICs will proliferate for workloads like virtual switching and to enforce software-defined networking (SDN) policies, surpassing $2.1B in revenue by 2024.
Next steps toward SmartNICs
Once you see the value of SmartNICs, you need to dig deeper before going on a spending spree. First, it’s not as simple as buying software and putting it on the server. You need to understand what your expectations of the software are in terms of performance and number of users. You need to consider how it will scale. That will drive the hardware decisions that you put into your network.
Determining these decisions requires a deep understanding of your applications and users, and the requirements for each. Every application is a little different. For instance, you could take applications A and B, put them both on a standard NIC, and A will work perfectly while B fails miserably. So, you have to really carefully evaluate each application or service’s needs, including how many users it needs to support simultaneously and what kind of attributes it has. You need to evaluate performance requirements, in terms of bandwidth and latency, and what kind of workload it involves. These considerations are key to ensuring you’re selecting the right solutions.
Into the SmartNIC future
Over the next five years, the size of the NIC market will more than triple, but the majority of those NICs will become SmartNICs, displacing standard/basic NICs. This will be driven solely by the need for servers to continue to be able to meet the requirements of applications and services that they are hosting. Use the guidelines above to consider what will work best for your organization’s needs and create a sound SmartNIC strategy.
Written by Jarrod J.S. Siket.
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