Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Saturday, December 3, 2022

Switch Chip Targets Programmable Networks 

Barefoot Networks, the high-flying networking chip startup that recently emerged from stealth mode, unveiled a zippy switch that it asserts is also fully programmable as the startup targets networking bottlenecks in software-defined datacenters.

The Palo Alto startup co-founded by chief scientist Nick McKeown, the former Stanford University engineering professor, is claiming multiple networking records along with fully programmable hardware. Meanwhile, the switch startup has so far raised $130 million in backing from investors that include Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL) and Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS) Principle Strategic Investments.

The company said its Tofino switch chip doubled the current speed record, processing packets at 6.5 terabits per second. Nevertheless, company founders stressed programmability as the differentiating factor for its chip technology, allowing network operators to specify the performance required of packet processing devices.

That means "network owners and their system vendors can determine precisely how packets are processed," the startup noted in a statement. By eliminating the "tyranny of fixed-function switch chips," Tofino would allow "software developers to program their network in much the same way they program a computer," the company added.

While nearly everything in the datacenter has changed over the last two decades, McKeown noted that the basic switch architecture has stubbornly remained "fixed-function." The prevailing view since the mid-1990s was that programmability came with a performance penalty.

Source: Barefoot Networks

"We went from monolithic software to [virtual machines] and then to containers and fully distributed applications," McKeown added. "With the rise of the cloud, datacenter traffic patterns changed as did the role of the datacenter.

"In all other parts of the datacenter we have moved to programmability," he continued, and the introduction of a programmable switch means network operators could "design, optimize and innovate to their specific requirements."

The combination of a fast, programmable switch chip with the P4 open source programming language has allowed early customers to create what the startup touts as new features that include replacing network load balancers and firewalls. Among the startup's value propositions is freeing datacenter owners to eliminate "middle boxes" and servers "by folding the functionality into their existing network…."

Along with McKeown, other Barefoot Network cofounders include CEO Martin Izzard, CTO Pat Bosshart, and Dan Lenoski, vice president of engineering. McKeown previously cofounded the software-defined networking and network virtualization pioneer Nicira Inc., which was acquired by VMware in 2012.

In development for the last two years, the programmable switch chip was launched "to hand the keys to the network to its owners so that they can define what it does, where it goes, how it behaves," Izzard noted in a company video. The switch chip "allows someone to make optimal use of what they have from compute to storage."

The overriding goal is to bring late 20th century networking technology into the 21st century, company executive stressed. With the rise of web-scale datacenters, McKeown explained, network operators are moving network infrastructure from hardware to software. "As they do that, they are impairing a whole army of developers and programmers to customize and change the behavior of the networks," he argued.

Hence, the startup claims its providing the switching chips and software needed to customize existing network infrastructure. Ultimately, company officials predict a programmable switch chip will place networking on an equal footing with computing and storage in the datacenter while helping to unclog the growing networking bottleneck brought about by expanding big data workloads.


About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 30 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as executive editor of Electronic Engineering Times. Leopold is the author of "Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" (Purdue University Press, 2016).

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