The CPU in today’s data center is increasingly burdened by the need to process networking jobs. According to Xilinx’s VP Marketing for Data Center Products, Donna Yasay, networking stacks can tax CPUs up to 30%, robbing them of the cycles needed to run users’ applications. Tier 1 cloud service providers have invested in custom ASICs to offload the CPU of these tasks. ASICs also provide new functionality such as security and AI inference processing. While the development of these custom chips is out of reach for all but the largest cloud companies, there are few turnkey SmartNICs available on the market today. Xilinx sees this as a new opportunity that could grow to over $600M by 2024.
Last year, Xilinx acquired SolarFlare, a developer of SmartNICs based on FPGAs. This week Xilinx launched its first SmartNIC, the Alveo U25, based off the technology acquired from SolarFlare. The idea is to provide both turnkey and customizable SmartNICs for a range of customers across SMB, enterprise data centers and Tier 2 and 3 cloud providers.
Initially, the Alveo cards feature SolarFlare Open vSwitch (OVS) acceleration, which offloads over 90 percent of OVS processing from the server and improves packet throughput by over 5X. Xilinx plans to release future solutions for security functions such as IPSec, SSL/TLS, AES-256/128 and distributed firewall. AI will also play a role here with inference acceleration for SDN, virtual switching, NFV, NVMe-oF, electronic trading, AI inference, video transcoding and data analytics. Xilinx customer Microsoft has been especially adept at offloading many workloads to FPGAs, resulting in significant savings.
Accelerators bypass the Linux or Microsoft kernel and run on the SmartNIC, which frees up CPU cycles for the main application. The direct connection between applications and networks enables fast connect and disconnect times, all while supporting the industry-standard TCP/IP stack. While smaller companies will likely use the turnkey solutions provided by Xilinx and 3rd party developers, larger data centers may opt to extend these SmartNICs with custom solutions, programming FPGAs directly.
The data center is increasingly heterogeneous, improving performance at the cost of increasing complexity. Xilinx believes it can address this conundrum with flexible and reconfigurable platforms, such as the next Alveo product line, which it will deliver through its network of added-value partners and integrators. Expanding and supporting this channel will take time and resources, but may enable Xilinx to participate in the cloud market by entering the data center through the back door. Meanwhile, it can sell directly to the larger tier 1 cloud service providers, such as Microsoft and Amazon AWS, who can handle the challenges of programming an FPGA. This looks like a smart strategy, and could effectively increase the data center SAM for a company that sees the data center as prime real estate for future growth.