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Service Provider Cloud

SmartNICs take center stage

SmartNICs, closely coupled with the latest server processors, are delivering the infrastructure processing performance and security needed for leading data center applications. An exclusive survey developed by Heavy Reading in collaboration with Intel and completed in January 2021 shows that many service providers are already deploying smartNICs. These solutions are set to have a big impact on the transition to cloud-native architectures and digital service platforms.

SmartNICs accelerate many applications

In addition to providing basic network interface functionality and TCP/IP offload, smartNICs are used to accelerate many applications, including programmable networking and storage virtualization. They are usually based on field-programmable gate array (FPGA) technology and deployed at scale by multiple hyperscale cloud service providers. SmartNICs are also usually tightly coupled with system-on-chip (SoC) or application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) devices and fit into standard PCIe slots in servers. They can be programmed directly using standard FPGA or processor development tools via a packet processing language such as P4 or through cloud-based services that support virtual FPGA instances. SmartNICs are designed to work seamlessly with server CPUs, offloading CPU cores and accelerating applications and services as required, with standard drivers to support advanced virtualization and live migration.

The results of Heavy Reading's survey show that smartNICs are being used in a wide range of applications. The leading applications are big data and data analytics, scaling cloud-native transition, edge computing and 5G RAN acceleration, and artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). Big data and data analytics are key requirements for organizations that are processing vast quantities of data from Internet of Things (IoT) devices and additional sources in smart cities, intelligent manufacturing, and other industries. The cloud-native transition is at the core of the shift to next-generation cloud services based on container technologies, which are being widely used by individuals and businesses.

Storage acceleration is a growing application, and it emerged as the leading additional application for smartNICs in the survey. Storage is an integral part of data centers, and the performance of applications and services can be significantly enhanced by accelerating and optimizing storage access by using smartNICs.

The latest wireless networks use virtualized RAN (vRAN) and cloud RAN architectures based on standard servers with smartNIC acceleration. The move to open RAN solutions will drive further demand for smartNICs in this application. ML inference and training requires acceleration for many workloads. As such, the growing use of inference as a service is increasing the use of smartNICs for AI and ML applications.

SmartNICs are assessed in different ways

Another area covered by the survey was the key considerations when selecting smartNIC solutions. The leading considerations were performance, cost and power consumption. By using the latest FPGA technology, closely coupled with the latest embedded processors, smartNICs can offload significant networking and storage infrastructure processing, dramatically increasing service and application performance and releasing server CPU cores for other workloads. This approach not only increases performance, but also significantly reduces total cost of ownership with higher data center performance-per-watt power consumption efficiencies of scale. SmartNICs are a key element in data center and edge computing servers delivering the infrastructure processing performance needed for the transition to cloud-native architectures and digital service platforms. They are being used in a wide range of applications, including storage acceleration, edge computing and 5G RAN. By choosing smartNIC solutions with the right mix of performance, cost and power consumption, service providers can deliver market-leading services and maximize their return on investment.

Looking for more information?

To find out more about the exclusive smartNIC survey developed by Heavy Reading in collaboration with Intel, see Heavy Reading SmartNIC Survey 2021: Accelerating Digital Services and Cloud-Native Transition.

This blog is sponsored by Intel.

— Simon Stanley, Analyst at Large, Heavy Reading

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