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Innovations: First Programmable Switch Chip Threatens to Roil Multiple Markets

Brian Santo
6/15/2016
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Startup Barefoot Networks has emerged from stealth with what appears to be the world's first programmable switch, an innovation that may have profound ramifications for networking in general and data centers in particular.

And if you don't need your switch to be programmable, Barefoot's Tofino chip will still be interesting, as it processes packets at 6.5 Terabytes per second, which the company claims is twice the speed of the previous record holder. Cavium Inc. (Nasdaq: CAVM) and Xpliant, for example, announced a 3.2 Tbit/s switching chip in 2014.

At the same time that Barefoot announced its switch, it also revealed that Goldman Sachs Principal Strategic Investments and Google led a new financing round that netted the company $57 million. The company is led by CEO Martin Izzard, who comes from Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN), and co-founder/chief scientist Nick McKeown, a Stanford U. professor who also founded Nicera, which VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW) bought in 2012 for $1.25 billion.

Software-defined networking (SDN) works at the level of the control plane, "but no matter what you do in software on the control plane, it still runs into the data plane," Izzard told Light Reading.

So the question Barefoot's founders asked themselves was: What if you could extend the programmability you have on the control plane to the data plane as well? This had been a speculative dead end for years, because in the past adding programmability inevitably bogged down switching speeds. Barefoot recently figured out a way to build a completely protocol-agnostic switch, one that is programmable and fast, Izzard told Light Reading.

Having a fully programmable switch will allow network owners for the first time to determine precisely how packets are processed -- seizing power from the "cabal" of current switch vendors, Barefoot says.


Want to know more about communications ICs? Check out our comms chips channel here on Light Reading.


Barefoot expected that the biggest benefit of having a programmable switch, backed by freely available and reasonably well known P4 language and associated tools, was the ability to introduce new features rapidly. And that is, indeed, an attraction.

Examples include features that replace load balancers, features that replace firewalls and features that add packet-by-packet telemetry enabling rapid debug of distributed application behavior.

Barefoot explained that the replacement of so-called middle boxes -- load balancers and firewalls -- has been an area of particular attention for P4 programmers. Large network operators frequently deploy vast numbers of "punishingly expensive middle boxes, or thousands of servers. Data center owners who adopt Barefoot will be able to eliminate these middle boxes by folding the functionality into their existing network for free," the company said.

"The mega data center folks were also interested because they could throw out a lot of features they simply don't use," Izzard said. It simplifies the switch, and allows the data center operators to recapture memory and table space resources.

Another benefit is that customers don't have to tell Barefoot what it is they're doing. They can innovate without anyone knowing what they're doing. "We keep getting cryptic questions about our compiler," Izzard observed.

Barefoot’s P4 development environment is available today from the company. The Tofino switch series will be sampling in Q4 this year. The open-source P4 programming language is available free from www.p4.org.

— Brian Santo, Senior Editor, Components, T&M, Light Reading

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