SmartNICs Power the Cloud, Are Enterprise Data Centers Next? • The register

SmartNICs have the potential to accelerate enterprise workloads, but don’t expect to see them bringing hyperscale-class efficiency to most data centers anytime soon, said Zeus Kerravala of ZK Research. The register.

SmartNICs are widely deployed in cloud and hyperscale data centers as a means of offloading network, security, and storage intensive input/output (I/O) operations from the CPU, freeing it to run workloads of income-generating tenant. Some more advanced chips even offload the hypervisor to further separate the infrastructure management layer from the rest of the server.

Despite relative success in the cloud and a flurry of innovation from the still-limited SmartNIC ecosystem of vendors, including Mellanox (Nvidia), Intel, Marvell and Xilinx (AMD), Kerravala says the use cases for Enterprise data centers are unlikely to resemble those of large hyperscalers, at least in the short term.

“When the cloud first emerged, hyperscalers went into their engagements with their customers on the assumption that everyone wanted to manage IT the way they did,” he said. “Enterprises are not hyperscalars. They don’t run IT like hyperscalars. They never will.”

Kerravala believes that for the SmartNIC market to move beyond the high-performance, efficiency-obsessed cloud world, the industry needs to re-evaluate how SmartNICs can accelerate enterprise workloads.

Opportunities abound

That said, Kerravala sees a plethora of use cases for SmartNICs in enterprise data centers and the edge.

SmartNICs are particularly well suited for processor-intensive workloads that involve large amounts of data, he said. “Traditional servers weren’t really meant for that kind of overhead.”

“There’s not a company I talk to that doesn’t tell me they have more data than ever before,” he added.

Kerravala says this makes SmartNICs particularly attractive to the growing number of industries looking for ways to use data to gain competitive advantage.

This includes markets you might not expect to need high-speed networking and I/O offload capabilities, such as retail, hospitality, and entertainment.

Kerravala pointed to sporting events, where a large number of live video streams are broadcast alongside player performance telemetry, as an example where SmartNICs could prove particularly useful.

Another area where SmartNICs can benefit enterprise customers is security. Because security is increasingly focused on analysis, Kerravala believes SmartNICs have the potential to bring security inspection closer to data.

Palo Alto Networks has already demonstrated this functionality by deploying its virtualized firewalls on Nvidia’s BlueField-2 SmartNICs.

Supporting these data-intensive workloads requires careful balancing of compute, storage, networking, and security to avoid bottlenecks. “You can’t have a fast network and slow storage just like you can’t have fast storage and a slow processor,” Kerravala said, adding that letting processors do what they’re supposed to do rather ‘having to deal with the network transport or encrypt traffic, will save companies money in the long run.

Barriers to adoption abound

Despite all the potential that SmartNICs have to offer, there are still substantial hurdles to overcome. The high price of SmartNICs compared to standard network cards is one of many.

Network vendors have been looking for this kind of I/O offloading functionality for years, with things like TCP offloading engines, Kerravala said. “It never really caught on and cost was the main factor there.”

Another challenge for SmartNIC vendors is the operational complexity associated with managing a fleet of distributed SmartNICs in a data center or at the edge.

“There’s a risk here that the complexity will get to the point where none of this is really usable,” he said, comparing the SmartNIC market to the early days of virtualization.

“People were starting to deploy VMs like crazy, but they had so many VMs they couldn’t manage them,” he said. “It wasn’t until VMware built vCenter that enterprises had a unified control plane for all their virtual machines. We don’t really have that on the SmartNIC side.”

This lack of centralized management could make it difficult to deploy at scale in environments that lack the resources commanded by leading hyperscalers. Most companies simply don’t have the IT resources, Kerravala explained.

Several companies are working closely with SmartNIC vendors to address these challenges. Juniper, for example, has worked with Intel and Nvidia to extend its Contrail orchestration platform to their SmartNICs. Similarly, VMware plans to address this challenge through its Project Monterey initiative.

“Like most technologies, element management is usually developed a few years after the elements,” Kerravala said.

Where to invest?

Currently, Kerravala believes that enterprise data centers can benefit from SmartNICs, but should deploy them sparingly to accelerate their most in-demand applications.

“If they have a high performance workload, use it there. I wouldn’t deploy it everywhere,” he said. “I would put them in handy fruit use cases. Use it for all the new, but leave the legacy as it is.”

He also recommends customers consider fully integrated platforms that combine software, management, and hardware into a single package.

Fungible is an example. The company offers a suite of storage and compute appliances built around its embedded data processing unit (DPU) – a buzzing name for SmartNICs – and managed through a common software layer.

Until recently, the company focused much of its attention on high-speed storage applications, but has recently applied the technology to compute pooling with a network-addressable appliance that allows for GPU resource dialing. on the fly.

However, in the long run, Kerravala believes SmartNIC vendors need to provide more than hardware and a loose SDK. He highlighted Nvidia’s efforts to create an ecosystem of hardware and software libraries needed to integrate support into enterprise software.

“This kind of whole system approach reduces complexity for the developer, helps build an ecosystem much faster, and really transforms what is essentially silicon into a platform,” Kerravala said. ®

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