Barefoot Networks' Ethernet switch chip wins Network Innovation Award

Tofino, a high-speed programmable chip that brings software-defined networking capabilities to the forwarding plane, aims to revolutionize the network.

TechTarget's latest Network Innovation Award winner -- Barefoot Networks' high-speed Ethernet switch chip, called Tofino -- promises to bring the programmability of software-defined networking to the forwarding plane, without slowing down performance. Barefoot first came out of stealth mode late last year, and Edgecore Networks and WNC recently introduced white box switches with the 6.5 Tbps silicon.

SearchNetworking spoke with Ed Doe, vice president of products and marketing at Barefoot Networks, based in Palo Alto, Calif., to learn more about Tofino.

Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What problem does Barefoot Networks' Ethernet switch chip solve?

Ed Doe: Data planes inside of networks have always been very rigid and fixed -- hardcoded into the chips that drive Ethernet switches and routers. Barefoot has come up with an open source programmable chip technology that allows people to innovate at the speed of programming. You can update that forwarding or data plane through an open source programming language, which we call P4.

So, now, for example, if a new protocol for better networking for containers comes along, then you can upgrade with a simple program. Historically, you'd have to go rip and replace all the hardware and come up with a new chip to support the new protocol.

What other benefits does the Tofino Ethernet switch chip offer?

Doe: It allows organizations to scale out their networks, letting them allocate resources to the features they care about. A lot of people also want to get more visibility to avoid network outages. With the programmable data plane, you can instrument the network to instantaneously identify a point of failure and then immediately fix it. So, it's almost like a self-healing network.

Tell me about P4.

Doe: We wanted to come up with a language that was open and accessible to everybody. We helped co-author the original idea with folks from Google, Microsoft, Intel, Princeton and Stanford -- all these different people that had experience in building large data centers and networks and in coming up with new languages.

With the programmable data plane, you can instrument the network to instantaneously identify a point of failure.
Ed Doevice president of products and marketing at Barefoot Networks

Today, P4 is an independent organization from Barefoot, with over 60 different organizational members -- including large cloud and telecom operators, enterprises and leading network equipment manufacturers. A very active ecosystem has evolved around this open source language.

Who can benefit from using a programmable Ethernet switch chip?

Doe: The types of people interested in innovating in the forwarding plane end up falling into three categories of users. First, there are the very large cloud providers who need to be able to make things run more efficiently inside their data centers.

The second group includes those who actually make networking equipment for the enterprise user. Companies like Cisco, Juniper, Dell and Huawei are interested in taking advantage of the power of programmability, so they can offer services and upgrades to their customers more quickly. With programmable chips, network equipment manufacturers can also cater to their customers' needs with differentiated products. No longer will a healthcare provider that is focused on security and reliability have to use the exact same network as a financial company that prioritizes speed and high throughput, for example.

In the third group are enterprise users that are already working in the world of white boxes. They have already started to innovate to get more control over the control plane, but they're looking to get more control over the data plane of their networks, as well. This new segment is small, but growing very rapidly. The world of network operations is becoming more developer-centric, with developers doing a little bit of coding to customize what they need -- as opposed to just using things out of the box or off the shelf.

Speaking of white box switches, does the programmable Ethernet switch chip fall under the umbrella of SDN?

Doe: We generally try not to associate it with SDN, because that term means a lot of different things to different people. To date, SDN largely encompasses the desire for people to want to take control of the control plane, rather than the data plane. So, in many ways, we view our technology as complementary.

Some people have called us the next evolution of SDN. In many ways, this is the tech that I think a lot of people originally thought of five, six, seven years ago when SDN was first starting to come about. But we're not doing what previous companies have done; we're really focused on making the control or forwarding plane of the network programmable.

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