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Mellanox Brings More Smarts to NICs

November 21, 2017

Author: Bob Wheeler

Is your cloud team having religious debates over the merits of FPGAs versus processors for workload acceleration? Mellanox doesn’t care who wins, as its new adapters fit either approach. This quarter, it’s sampling Innova-2 NICs for 25G and 100G Ethernet that integrate FPGAs. In January, the company will sample 25G Ethernet NICs based on its new BlueField ARM SoC.

Innova-2 follows last year’s 10/40G Ethernet Innova NICs. Aside from handling new Ethernet rates, Innova-2 upgrades the on-board FPGA from the Xilinx UltraScale (20nm) to the UltraScale+ (16nm) generation. It also moves from Mellanox’s ConnectX-4 Lx controller to ConnectX-5, which enables a new lookaside mode for FPGA access. As before, the company offers both plug-and-play security acceleration as well as a framework for customers’ FPGA designs.

The new BlueField SmartNIC requires customer programming. It includes an eight-core version of the BlueField SoC, which itself integrates an Ethernet controller based on ConnectX-5. The Cortex-A72 CPUs can perform fully symmetric multiprocessing, enabling the NIC to run Linux. Customers can then program the SoC using a standard Linux environment and Gnu tools.

The BlueField SmartNIC primarily serves networking applications, offloading workloads such as virtual switches, compression, packet capture, virtual network functions, and network security. The latter application overlaps with Innova-2, which also serves IPSec and SSL/TLS offload. By providing its new lookaside feature, however, Innova-2 can also handle compute acceleration for non-network tasks. That is, the FPGA and Ethernet controller share a PCI Express slot but can operate independently.

The smart-NIC market comprises a variety of merchant and customer-proprietary designs. For processor-based NICs, merchant vendors include Broadcom, Cavium, and Netronome, so the BlueField SmartNIC faces direct competition. To date, merchant FPGA-based NICs have served only vertical applications; Mellanox hopes to crack high-volume applications with Innova-2.

Subscribers can view the full article in the Microprocessor Report.

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