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Intel Embeds x86 Into Telco Networks

September 22, 2014

By Jag Bolaria


Following up on its earlier release of the Seacliff Trail Open Network Platform (ONP), a reference design for switches, Intel is now offering a server reference platform code-named Sunrise Trail. Driven by telcos’ desire for lower cost, the company is marching forward on its vision to replace fixed-function networking equipment with high-volume x86 servers. Telcos want software-defined networking (SDN) for greater flexibility and lower operating expenses, and they want network-function virtualization (NFV) for its ability to quickly deploy and scale new services.

Intel jumped on this trend early by contributing to the work of numerous standards bodies developing SDN- and NFV-related specifications (see NWR 5/6/13, “Intel Rewired”). It plans to capitalize on its lead by delivering platforms that reduce the entry barrier for OEMs using x86 servers in communications. The company expects the ONP server to enable a host of virtual communications equipment, including virtual routers, virtual firewalls, and virtual Evolved Packet Core (EPC).

The ONP server reference architecture consists of three layers. At the bottom are the nodes that implement data-plane elements such as virtual switches and appliances. Next is the node-management controller. At the top is the orchestration layer for network management and administration. This layer matches the available resources to the workload demands and monitors network health, utilization, and availability.

The ONP pairs Intel’s components and packet-processing software with industry-standard software stacks, including the Linux-based Fedora 20 operating system and VMM, the OpenDaylight “Hydrogen” SDN controller, and the OpenStack “Icehouse” for orchestration. OpenDaylight provides the controller and APIs to manage virtual entities that the x86 server implements. It supports Open vSwitch and OpenFlow, and it offers utilities for network virtualization and policy management. OpenStack provides the orchestration layer, which includes APIs to the controller.

The hardware begins with embedded versions of Intel’s new Xeon E5 v3 (see MPR 9/22/14, “Haswell Crams 18 Cores Into Xeon E5”) and XL710 Ethernet controller (see NWR 9/22/14, “Intel Takes 40G Ethernet Mainstream”). The 89xx south bridge includes the company’s QuickAssist hardware accelerators (see NWR 1/6/14, “Highland Forest Pumps More Packets”). Intel adds the new version 1.7 of its DPDK packet-processing software, which integrates Open vSwitch. Called DPDK Accelerated Open vSwitch, the new version increases packet-switching throughput and decreases latency—particularly for small packets.

Using the newly announced Xeon E5-2699 v3 processors, Intel projects a significant improvement in Layer 3 forwarding compared with the earlier Xeon E5-2658 v2. At 320Gbps, the Xeon E5-2699 v3 should deliver up to 45% greater forwarding performance than its aforementioned predecessor. That chip, however, has 18 cores, whereas the E5-2658 v2 has 10; the former also has a 4% slower clock. In addition, the E5-2699 v3 consumes 145W TDP, compared with 95W TDP for the E5-2658 v2.

Note that the Xeon E5-2699 v3 is available only as a server version—not as an embedded processor, which comes with guarantees of long-term availability. Intel is offering 27 server versions and 9 embedded versions of the new Xeon E5. The embedded line ranges from 52W to 120W TDP and includes three 6-core, two 8-core, one 10-core, and three 12-core models. Prices for these chips range from $417 to $1,745.

The 85 partners developing SDN/NFV solutions, 30 software vendors developing virtual-networking equipment, and more than 25 operator trials and proof-of-concept evaluations are early indicators that Intel is succeeding at driving x86 into telco infrastructure. For example, Telefonica has benchmarked Brocade’s Vyatta 5600 vRouter and plans to deploy virtual customer premises equipment (vCPE) in Brazil later this year. At IDF, Red Hat demonstrated virtual-function service chaining in x86 platforms using software from Brocade and Riverbed. HP offers an NFV solution on the Xeon E5 v3, and Nokia Networks (NSN) enables vCPE to run in a base station already deployed by two carriers (Zain KSA and Cellcom).

Operators are looking to SDN and NFV to help reduce cost and add revenue-generating services. Intel has made a major push to drive x86 into the emerging SDN and NFV network architectures. Using its ONP platform, the company provides hardware and software ingredients that have received end-to-end validation in an SDN environment. OEMs can employ these ingredients to deliver systems that help move SDN and NFV from the drawing board to reality.

Given that operators such as AT&T, BT, China Mobile, NTT, and Verizon are conducting trials using x86 platforms, field deployments should start rolling out in 2015. Intel’s success also opens the door for competing products like AMD’s x86 line, Broadcom’s XLP, and Cavium’s Octeon. These competing processors should have lower prices than Intel’s offering, and the latter two consume less power. We expect operators to refrain from moving broadly to SDN and NFV but instead pursue a long and measured transition. During this time, they will continue to use existing fixed-function network equipment while adding new SDN equipment. These upgrades present growth opportunities for Intel and its processor peers.

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