SDN, NFV, and the Hardware Cycle of Life

Despite all of the rapid innovation and the incredible rate of change in technology, there are some things that you can count on. One of those things is that the transition from hardware to software is a cyclical one, and if you look at any one segment of the market long enough, that becomes apparent. We’ve seen it in the move from mainframes to x86 servers, to virtualized servers, to distributed, scale-out systems. We’ve seen it in the move from terminals to PCs to VDI to EUC and even in the move from legacy storage arrays to software layer, scale-out storage aggregation. Now, we can start to see the SDN market following the same pattern, and one of the leading indicators of that comes from a company called Netronome.

The SDN Market

The software-defined networking (SDN) market, much like the end user computing (EUC) and virtualization markets before it, has been defined broadly by the question: “Where is the most efficient place to run the code that makes things work?” Typically, these cycles start with a pure hardware instantiation or one that leverages a proprietary hardware solution. Next, they move into something that runs as pure software, typically sitting on a commodity x86 platform. Both of these iterations of the cycle seem to have their share of religious fanatics; the proprietary hardware model isn’t one that tolerates interruption to its manufacturing margins, and the software model is one that thrives on disruption, especially as it moves into an open-source arena.

The SDN Market Evolution: Netronome’s Offering

Netronome appears to be one of the first offerings in the third phase of the SDN market evolution: a proprietary hardware solution that is designed to augment and offload control plane traffic inside the (presumably virtualized) x86 server the workloads are running on. Using a custom-designed flow processor, the company’s FlowNIC cards provide 6 Gbps to 200 Gbps of line rate flow processing packaged in a PCIe Gen3 8x form factor.

More interestingly, the flow processor seems to be designed for SDN, and more specifically the OpenStack SDN workload. With full support for OpenFlow 1.3, Open vSwitch (OVS) 2.0 acceleration, SR-IOV support, an included Intel Data Plane Development Kit (DPDK) poll-mode driver, and certified support for Kernel-based virtual machines (KVM), it would seem to be a tailor-made solution for including a fully capable top-of-rack switch directly into the hosts themselves.


In addition to virtualized environments, the FlowNIC cards would seem to be perfect for building network service appliances, especially ones that run on Ubuntu, CentOS, or KVM. In fact, Netronome offers a series of reference designs that scale from four to twenty cores that provide OEMs with the ability to do just that. Allowing for modular expansion would seem to make scaling easy as network needs increase, which would be a perfect scenario for many firewall, intrusion detection system (IDS), and network security analytic platforms.

Ironically, hardware is only part of the solution from Netronome. It also offers a software management package that provides full API-based support for all of the functions the card can perform. NFV and SDN awareness, hypervisor support and API availability? Here’s hoping I can get a few of these for the lab and see how hard I can push them.

A More Balanced Marketplace?

Pure technology and form factor aside, I’m hopeful that this signifies a more balanced marketplace with regards to how to deploy, accelerate, and manage network functions virtualization (NFV) and SDN technologies. There are instances in which putting the control and offload at the top of the rack in a switch makes sense, and there are instances in which leveraging the CPU of the host is enough. Now, it appears there’s a solution in the middle, which is always where the most mainstream of use cases sit. There are certainly other players in this space, including Cavium and Freescale, which is a good sign of customer and investor interest. However, Netronome seems to be at the forefront of fully embracing the new style of NFV and SDN stacks with its focus on OpenFlow and OVS standards.

Key Takeaway

As the hysteria and religious fervor over NFV and SDN starts to die down and enterprise adoption rises, my prediction is that we’ll begin to see more solutions that look to address specific workload requirements, like Netronome. Big picture, this is a good thing for the market overall, since focusing on use cases means that the vendors are starting to listen to customers. Netronome appears to have provided a thoughtfully constructed combination of hardware designed to handle control plane offload with software used to make it compatible with SDN-friendly solutions. Time will tell how well received it is, but it’s good to see a practical take on how to handle new kinds of network architectures.

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