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AMD heats up DPU competition with Pensando acquisition

AMD's $1.9 billion acquisition of Pensando would hand the chipmaker a DPU that leans toward providing distributed network services within large enterprises' private clouds.

AMD's $1.9 billion acquisition of Pensando would place the chipmaker next to Intel and Nvidia in vying for the business of large enterprises deploying smartNICs as critical infrastructure for modernized data centers running private clouds.

AMD this week disclosed plans to acquire the Milpitas, Calif., maker of programmable packet processors before July. Pensando technology competes with the digital processing units (DPU) Intel and Nvidia make for smartNICs.

Enterprises like Pensando customer Goldman Sachs use smartNICs with processors that can offload telemetry, security, storage and networking services from a server's CPU. The architecture dedicates more CPU power to run applications that drive an enterprise's business.

Also, the architecture provides software-defined centralized control of the services. That is "hugely important for ensuring operational efficiency," said Bob Laliberte, a senior analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group.

AMD is a longtime provider of server CPUs, so the acquisition could help Pensando accelerate growth in its core business and allow it to pursue a much larger customer base across more markets, Pensando CEO Prem Jain said in a statement.

The Pensando packet processor uses an ARM core to control and supervise packet paths while allowing smartNIC manufacturers to use the specialized P4 programming language to tailor the data plane for customers' use cases.

Pensando DSC-100
The Pensando DSC-100 Distributed Services Card delivers software-defined services for public and private clouds.

Intel started pursuing a similar technique with the 2019 acquisition of Barefoot Networks, a chipmaker for switches. Nvidia's smartNIC technology is the programmable BlueField DPU. The company has partnered with VMware to deliver its ESXi hypervisor on BlueField.

Distributing services in smartNICs to boost application performance started with public cloud providers like AWS and Microsoft Azure. AMD, Intel and Nvidia want to work with enterprises that plan to mimic the architecture in their private clouds.

"What you get with the likes of Pensando is a building block that alters the way people have traditionally built infrastructure for 30 years," Ashish Nadkarni, group vice president at IDC's infrastructure practice, said.

Pensando, Intel and Nvidia each approach DPUs from a different perspective, Nadkarni said. Pensando, founded by former Cisco CEO John Chambers, leans toward networking, Nvidia artificial intelligence, and Intel machine learning and real-time network telemetry.

What you get with the likes of Pensando is a building block that alters the way people have traditionally built infrastructure for 30 years.
Ashish NadkarniGroup vice president, IDC

The "low-hanging fruit" for enterprises today is to use smartNICs to gather and analyze telemetry to measure what's happening in a network, said Silvano Gai, a Pensando Systems fellow and author of Building a Future-Proof Cloud Infrastructure from Pearson, in a recent interview.

Another useful purpose with low overhead is distributing network taps, which are external monitoring devices that mirror traffic between two network nodes, according to Gai. Tap-makers design them, so they don't impede production traffic flow.

With Pensando, AMD has the option of offering a distributed services platform that enterprises can deploy with minimal disruption to their data center servers, ESG's Laliberte said.

Last year, Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, launched the CX 10000 Series of top-of-rack switches, including the Pensando platform. The hardware delivers distributed networking and security services without replacing servers or adding smartNICs.

As a result, the option isn't disruptive to existing data centers because "you're not going in and ripping open a server," Laliberte said.

Enterprise Strategy Group is a division of TechTarget.

Antone Gonsalves is the news director for the Networking Media Group. He has deep and wide experience in tech journalism. Since the mid-1990s, he has worked for UBM's InformationWeek, TechWeb and Computer Reseller News. He has also written for Ziff Davis' PC Week, IDG's CSOonline and IBTMedia's CruxialCIO, and rounded all of that out by covering startups for Bloomberg News. He started his journalism career at United Press International, working as a reporter and editor in California, Texas, Kansas and Florida.

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