Entering the Next Frontier – SmartNIC/Data Processing Unit

Learn about a "server within a server" technology that will change the way we implement networking and security functions from the edge to the core to the cloud.

This blog is co-authored by Paul Turner, Vice President, Product Management vSphere, VMware.

We are near the start of the next major architectural shift in IT infrastructure where we empower x86-based servers with next-generation SmartNIC/Data Processing Units (DPU) by consolidating compute, networking, performance and programmability functions onto a single, highly cost-effective form factor.

This will be a timely shift because in parallel we continue to see the adoption of modern applications, workloads, and virtual resources, which are placing even more demands on server CPU’s. These functions are expecting near real-time performance in terms of throughput, response times and latency. With its multi-functional capability, the SmartNIC/DPU will be able to offload a variety of networking and security tasks from the server CPU and allow the DPU to handle these demands. For example, the DPU will be able to offload functions like physical and virtual switching or packet processing using it’s built in network operating system (NOS) and in some cases its on-board acceleration engine.

It’s a very exciting time because as these DPU’s become more common we can expect to see additional offloading occurring from the server CPU with functions like encryption/decryption, firewalling, packet inspection, routing, storage networking and more being handled by the DPU. By combining the DPU’s processing core with a collection of hardware accelerator blocks, it will greatly improve overall performance for data processing functions like encryption, compression and decompression and erasure coding. These capabilities will introduce a whole new approach to networking implementations both within central data centers, at the edge of the network and into the cloud environment.

In the case of virtualization, we are working closely with VMware on their Project Monterey initiative where they are placing a separate ESXi hypervisor on the DPU. By doing this, the DPU will be able to run a variety of virtualized functions such as networking, security and storage workloads. This collaboration effort also includes partnering with SmartNIC/DPU vendors NVIDIA and Pensando by incorporating their respective technologies into the integrated solution.

Due to the tight integration with VMware and Dell EMC, VxRail will be the first Dell Technologies solution with SmartNIC/DPU technology to launch in the Spring of 2022. And of course, the turn-key experience which defines the VxRail Advantage will include automation, orchestration, and lifecycle management of the SmartNIC/DPU firmware and the new ESXi hypervisor running on it.

The sky’s the limit with places where the DPU can provide impressive benefits for a wide variety of needs ranging from new cloud services to 5G implementations. Within the data center, the DPU’s small size and form factor can help reduce power, cooling and footprint requirements by replacing standalone, purpose-built hardware devices. For locations where physical space is a premium, like network edge locations and cell towers, DPUs can be installed within existing servers to deploy a variety of needed physical and virtual functions again without requiring additional hardware. The best part is the integration of modern programming capabilities like P4 to easily design and implement custom features for the DPU.

DPUs will also empower service providers, telcos, and large enterprises to quickly roll out new services in the cloud and at edge locations without the need for expensive, power-hungry, or purpose-built networking hardware. As networks continue to evolve, it’s important to note that DPUs will be able to be used for network monitoring, telemetry and observability functions in a highly distributed zero-trust environment across the cloud and edge instances.

We see great things in store for DPU implementations going forward and look forward to closely working with many of you to unleash this next major architectural shift. Come visit us at VMworld 2021 to learn more about what we’re doing. Here are a few sessions to attend:

    • Partner Roundtable Discussion: Project Monterey – Redefining Data Center Solutions [MCL2379]
    • Project Monterey: Present, Future and Beyond [MCL1401]
    • 10 Things You Need to Know About Project Monterey [MCL1833]

Visit these sites to find out more about Dell Technologies networking and about VMware.

Ihab Tarazi

About the Author: Ihab Tarazi

Ihab Tarazi is the Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President at Dell Technologies, Infrastructure Solutions & Ecosystems where he is responsible for technology strategy and next generation platforms including 5G, Edge, AI/HPC and Servers, as well as engagements with technology vendors and cloud ecosystems.  Prior to this role, Mr. Tarazi served as Chief Technology Officer at Packet Host, Inc. (currently Equinix Metal), a leading bare metal cloud company built for developers, where he was responsible for the company's Product, Engineering and Technology. Prior to joining Packet, Mr. Tarazi held a number of positions in the telecom and infrastructure space, including Chief Technology Officer at data center and colocation provider Equinix, where he was responsible for developing the Equinix Cloud Exchange and strategic engagements with leading platforms in the Cloud, Security, Storage, Edge and IoT. Previously Mr. Tarazi served as VP Engineering and Technology at Verizon, where he led a global team for the Engineering and Product Development of Global Enterprise Services including MPLS VPN, IP, Ethernet, Security and Managed Services. He serves as a member of the board of directors for NeoPhotonics Corp. since October 2015.  He is also a member of the board for Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP). Mr. Tarazi holds a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications from the University of Maryland and an M.S. in Telecommunications Management from Southern Methodist University.