Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Monday, June 27, 2022

Mellanox Ethernet/ARM NICs Lighten CPU Burden 

For the advanced data center of the coming decade, the fight for dominance calls to mind a half dozen sumo wrestlers in the ring at the same time, each putting themselves into position for the struggle ahead. Last week saw a slew of partnerships and products from Nvidia designed to enable its GPU technologies to be more easily adopted for AI-related workloads. Intel, broadening beyond its long-standing X86-centric approach, is actively investing in an FPGA platform infrastructure for handling compute-intensive workloads. HPE and IBM tout their data-centric visions.

In the mix is Mellanox, whose “intelligent network,” strategy – in which tasks are offloaded from (what it views as) the overburdened central processor and then distributed around the system, reducing CPU cycles, latency, data movement and power consumption.

Today, the company announced new BlueField SmartNIC Ethernet- and ARM-based software programmable network adapters for scale-out server and storage applications that Mellanox said will move significant workloads, including network virtualization, security and network traffic acceleration, out to the network. The adapters embed up to 16 ARM processor cores and accelerators in the network interface card (NIC) with up to 200Gb/s of throughput.

“It’s really a powerful programming engine that takes our state-of-the-art ConnectX network adapter and combines it with state-of-the-art programming and ARM A72 processors,” said Kevin Deierling, Mellanox vice president of marketing, who told EnterpriseTech the adapter is a system on a chip (SoC) and a “computer in front of the computer.” “We’ve combined all of that and put it on what looks like a standard network interface card.”

The company said integrating compute and accelerator resources directly into the NIC boosts the server workload capacity by 2 to 3 times, without requiring additional rack space or adding significant power. The goal is to provide cloud and large data center operators with the adaptability and scalability of programmable adapters to roll-out new services and advanced protocols without opening servers for a hardware upgrade.

Mellanox said the programmable environment and DPDK framework support a range of standard software packages running in the BlueField ARM subsystem.

Key features of the BlueField adapters:

  • 2 network ports of Ethernet or InfiniBand: 10G/25G, 40G, 50G or 100Gb/s options
  • RDMA support for both InfiniBand and RoCE
  • Accelerators for NVMe-over-Fabrics (NVMe-oF), RAID, crypto and packet processing
  • PCI Express Gen3 and Gen4, with either x8 or x16-lane configurations
  • Integrated low-latency PCIe switch with up to 8 external ports for multiple topologies
  • Up to 16 ARMv8 Cortex A72 processors with 20MB of coherent cache
  • 8 – 32GB of on-board DDR4 DRAM

Deierling was happy to share recent findings from market analyst Seamus Crehan of Crehan Research that places Mellanox in the no. 2 spot, ahead of Cisco and behind only Intel, in the Ethernet NIC market. While Intel, according to Crehan, has more than 50 percent market share and Mellanox has a 15 percent share, Deierling said today’s market is dominated 10Gb NICs.

“We see the data center moving from 10 to 25Gb, and if you look at those faster speeds – 25, 40, 50 and 100Gb – that’s where Mellanox is the leader,” said Deierling. He said Crehan’s market studies show that, as of 2016, 10Gb comprises more than 80 percent of the Ethernet NIC market but in five years, the market for 25Gb or more will grow to more than 60 percent.

“Twenty-five is the new 10,” Deierling said.

Mellanox said the Bluefield adapters support standard software packages running in the BlueField ARM subsystem, such as Open vSwitch (OVS), security packages such as L3/4 firewall, DDoS protection and Intrusion prevention, encryption stacks (IPsec, SSL/TLS), traffic monitoring, telemetry and packet capture.

“We expect the BlueField SmartNIC adapters to be a compelling offering in the software-defined networking space,” said Bob Wheeler, principal analyst at The Linley Group. “Performance demands in this segment are growing rapidly and Mellanox is well positioned with the ubiquitous driver support of its broadly deployed ConnectX network controller. With the addition of the accelerators and ARM cores, BlueField will enable exciting innovations in server and storage applications.”

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