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Barefoot Networks debuts high-speed programmable chip for switches

Barefoot Networks emerges from stealth mode with a high-speed switch chip that makes packet processing programmable.

A Palo Alto, Calif., chip company is introducing switch silicon it claims will give enterprises and data center managers unprecedented control over how packets are processed and forwarded throughout their networks.

Barefoot Networks emerged from stealth mode this week with Tofino, a user-programmable chip that processes packets at 6.5 Tbps -- twice the speed of prevailing switch silicon.

The company is marketing the 16-nanometer-linewidth chip both as an alternative to technology underpinning today's fixed-function application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) and as a means to extend SDN's fundamental programmability, said Nick McKeown, Barefoot's founder and chief scientist.

"What we've seen so far is that software is used to configure networks. It doesn't actually change the way in which the packets themselves are processed," he said. With the programmable chip technology Barefoot engineered in Tofino, McKeown said, the company found a way to make packet processing fully programmable, rather than being a function that's prescribed on an ASIC -- and without incurring any slowdown in performance.

"It's a simple reflection of the basic operations that it takes to process packets," he said. "As they come into the chip, they're processed in order to do things like encapsulate, to modify the headers, to schedule their departure time. All of these things are programmable, and it's very simple to program."

Open source language anchors Tofino programmable chip

Functionality is enabled through P4, an open source language that directs how packets are processed by network devices. The year-old P4 Language Consortium has more than 30 members, including such companies as Cisco, Juniper and Microsoft.

What we've seen so far is that software is used to configure networks. It doesn't actually change the way in which the packets themselves are processed.
Nick McKeownchief scientist, Barefoot Networks

McKeown, a well-known tech entrepreneur who co-founded Nicira before launching Barefoot, said the framework will make it possible for companies to tailor their networks to meet their own needs, thus keeping their competitive advantages and intellectual property intact.

Programmability is one part of the chip's value. The other is Tofino's faster speed, which allows packet-processing functions that are now hardcoded on general-purpose X86 processors to be performed in software.

Barefoot said early customers are already writing programs to replace middle boxes running such functions as load balancers and firewalls -- transferring those operations from those slower servers to the programmable chip in the switch itself.

Large data centers, OEMs major targets

John Burke, CIO and principal analyst with Nemertes Research in Mokena, Ill., said Tofino will appeal to three market segments: large data centers, cloud and other service providers, and network switch OEMs that will incorporate the technology into their product lines.

"It's going to be a tough competitive picture no matter what," Burke said of the challenges Barefoot will be facing as it attempts to carve a market niche. "Barefoot's real hope is its ability to do something significantly different will let them keep their oar in the water long enough to get established and get a good customer base before somebody like Broadcom comes in and tries to ship the same thing."

Broadcom declined to comment on Barefoot's plans. Mellanox Technologies Ltd., another chip supplier, didn't respond to a request to comment.

Barefoot said the Tofino programmable chip technology will be available in the late fall. The P4 compiler and associated development tools are available now.

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