Explore VMware SmartNICs have long been the domain of hyperscale and cloud data centers, but they remain relatively uncommon in enterprise environments, largely due to the lack of software compatibility. But with official support for AMD and Nvidia’s data processing units (DPUs) now baked into VMware’s popular hypervisor, that may not be the case for long.
At the VMware Explore conference this week, Nvidia and AMD announced support for running the vSphere 8 virtualization stack on their respective BlueField and Pensando DPUs. The announcement represents the culmination of more than two years of work under VMware’s Project Monterey, which requested Nvidia, AMD-Pensando, Intel and others to port vSphere’s virtualization features to dedicated accelerators.
Often referred to as SmartNICs, DPUs, or Infrastructure Processing Units (IPUs), these accelerators typically combine high-speed networks and a combination of fixed-function ASICs or configurable FPGAs with general purpose compute processors. In this regard, the DPU essentially functions as a coprocessor for I/O intensive workloads. The ultimate goal is for these accelerators to pick up the work of a host server, which handles tasks — such as network packet filtering — at high speed, leaving the host’s processor cores to run applications.
These devices have been used in public cloud and hyperscale data centers for years. They isolate tenant workloads from networking, security, storage, and other infrastructure activities associated with running the data center, freeing up host CPU cycles. VMware’s Project Monterey attempted to bring these capabilities to a more mainstream enterprise audience.
While VMware worked to bring its software stack to SmartNICs, Nvidia and AMD were busy buying network vendors that could give them an edge in what they saw as an emerging market.
In 2019, Nvidia announced the acquisition of Mellanox, which was in the process of bringing its 200Gbit/sec BlueField-2 SmartNIC to market. Similarly, AMD has paid well over $50 billion in the past two years to expand its data processing capabilities with the acquisition of FPGA vendor Xilinx and later SmartNIC startup Pensando. The chip house outlined its plans for merging FPGAs, ASICs and Arm cores for its first internal SmartNIC system-on-chip at the Hot Chips event last week.
Paving the way for SmartNIC . adoption
However, the software required to leverage these accelerators has remained somewhat elusive, with many relying on highly proprietary and vendor-specific software stacks.
By extending support for vSphere to these devices, VMware aims to change that by enabling its customers to achieve cloud-like efficiencies in their data centers using their preferred virtualization stack. Meanwhile, for Nvidia and AMD, it’s an opportunity to capitalize on years of research and development.
“We’ve seen an evolution where companies have moved from truly custom devices, with networking, security, storage and management, to a software-defined data center,” Nvidia SVP of Networking Kevin Deierling said at a news conference last week. “So with VMware, now with vSphere 8.0, we’ve moved that process — the infrastructure management and storage and software-defined networking — that all now runs on BlueField.”
It’s a similar story for Pensando’s Distributed Services Card, which AMD says can improve efficiency by freeing up host CPU cycles and improve security by isolating infrastructure services from tenant workloads.
“VMware vSphere Distributed Services Engine, powered by AMD’s Pensando DPUs, is an important step in bringing the industry closer to composable hardware systems,” boasted Forrest Norrod, SVP of AMD’s Datacenter Solutions Group, in a statement.
Both vendors cite lower operating costs as one of the clearest benefits of deploying DPU-equipped systems. Nvidia’s Deierling claims total cost of ownership savings of $8,200 per server over its useful life. “For an enterprise with 1,000 node servers, this improvement will save $1.8 million over three years,” he claimed.
This week’s announcement of vSphere support also addresses one of the biggest challenges for customers looking to deploy SmartNICs in their data centers: enterprise support. Although SmartNICs are available on the open market, they are not necessarily validated for use in OEM systems.
During VMWare Explore this week, AMD said it would begin offering its 400Gbit/sec-capable Pensando DPUs in the coming weeks through leading server OEMs such as Dell, HPE and Lenovo. Likewise, from November, Nvidia will begin shipping its 200Gbit/sec BlueField-2 DPUs in Dell PowerEdge systems. Users can also test the BlueField-2 as part of Nvidia’s cloud LaunchPad service.
More to come
While Nvidia and AMD may be among the first to support VMware’s vSphere software stack, if current trends continue, they won’t be the last.
Intel has developed a number of FPGA and ASIC-based SmartNICs — or IPUs as it prefers to call them — and has also been closely involved with Project Monterey from the start. The chip giant’s upcoming Mount Evans and Oak Springs Canyon accelerators are slated to ship “later this year,” we’re told.
Marvell has also set its sights on claiming a slice of the DPU market with its Octeon 10 DPUs announced last year. The cards have an integrated terabit switch for fast network offload.
As these accelerators become more accessible, so will the software. Palo Alto Networks, for example, last summer demonstrated its virtualized firewall features, including intrusion detection and protection on a BlueField-2 DPU.
And in June, the Linux Foundation, supported by a slew of DPU, OEM and software vendors such as Nvidia, Intel, Marvell, F5, Keysight, Dell Tech and Red Hat, launched the Open Programmable Infrastructure project to accelerate the development of smartNIC. -activated applications.
The question that the OPI project aims to solve is “how do we generalize this technology and how do we make this technology available for everyone to consume,” said Yan Fisher, Red Hat’s global evangelist for emerging technologies. The register at the time. There are certainly enough players out there now to find out. ®