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The role of SmartNICs in 5G’s drive for new network architecture


5G, cloud and edge computing, and IoT €“ any one of these monumental technology developments could be considered one of the biggest networking evolutions in human history. And yet we’re experiencing all of them simultaneously. As a combined force, they are radically changing the way people communicate €“ and the way networks are built to support them. Programmable SmartNICs play a central role in this transition, increasing speed and performance while cutting costs. 


More 5G requires more data centers  

As 5G adoption expands, that means telecom operators are needed to build new data centers and expand the number of access points to a massive scale. All of this is with the goal of unlocking unimaginable new services based on greater bandwidth and lower latency. The IoT is having a similar, concurrent effect. These developments demand greater compute capacity. €¯ 


It€™s no surprise, then, that Gartner predicts organizations will increase their investments in€¯edge€¯capacity.€¯Cloud and edge computing data center operators continue to expand to hyper-scale, delivering more intelligent,€¯localized,€¯and autonomous computing resources for an€¯increasing€¯set of users€¯and applications.€¯€¯ 


Changing requirements for the network 

New network designs are necessary for the possibilities that these technological innovations create €“ and there’s too much at stake for failure to be an option. Datacenter designers and operators have emerged with a clear set of networking requirements that cannot be compromised:  

Efficiency: The central processing units (CPUs) offload all burdensome workloads, such as networking, data and security processing. 

Agility: The network needs programmability that allows the hardware to evolve as fast as new networking protocols and standards do, as well as the threat landscape driven by bad actors.  

Performance: Line-rate networking with ultra-low latency that scales from 25 gigabit Ethernet in the servers to 100 gigabit Ethernet and beyond in the network links that connect them. 

Orchestration: New methods for automation, configuration, and control to orchestrate and manage so many elements at this scale. 

Economics: Cost-savings need to shift the design of networks towards open standards, and commodity, off-the-shelf products.  

Security: A new distributed architecture for devices and applications to be able to enter the network in many configurations. 

Sustainability: A size and power configuration that is environmentally friendly while still delivering the needed performance. 


The role of programmable SmartNICs 

These requirements are must-haves, so organizations are moving away from networks that are large, proprietary, expensive, monolithic, vertically integrated systems €“ and a new method of software-defined networking has emerged.  

The decline of Moore’s Law has created the need for a new heterogeneous processing architecture where expensive and burdensome workloads are€¯offloaded from the CPUs.€¯This model has proven to be successful in the past, with GPUs offloading video and graphics processing from€¯the€¯CPU. This same model is now being applied for data,€¯network,€¯and security processing.€¯However, the applications underpinned by 5G, cloud, edge computing and IoT often fail on standard servers with basic NICs.  

With the sunsetting of Moore’s Law, enterprises prefer SmartNICs as the method to avoid these problems and help advance datacenter computing.€¯A€¯SmartNIC’s primary function is to operate as a co-processor inside of the server, offloading the CPU€¯from the burdensome tasks of network and security processing, while simultaneously€¯accelerating applications€¯on multiple dimensions. SmartNICs require less CPU usage than regular NICs, so they return valuable (and expensive) resources to the applications and services that generate revenue.€¯Cost shifts from custom, proprietary hardware to multi-vendor, open, standard hardware, operating systems, and applications.€¯ 

Unlike standard NICs, SmartNICs can adapt to a variety of use cases, such as load balancing, data path optimization, security, virtualization, and storage. They uniquely meet the network design requirements for performance, agility, efficiency, security, economics,€¯orchestration€¯, and sustainability.€¯ 


Making the most of today’s possibilities 

New networks must be built to support the above developments €“ a whole new type of network with stringent requirements for its communications infrastructure. SmartNICs make this new network architecture possible, yielding a low-cost yet high-performance result while meeting all the other requirements. SmartNICs offload burdensome processing tasks for maximum efficiency; they’re an essential part of the infrastructure enterprises need today.