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SmartNICs and the need for evolving network infrastructure

SmartNICs can meet the increasing demand for high performance, low latency and secure data transfer. But the implementation of smartNICs requires reliable network infrastructure.

A smartNIC is an intelligent network interface card that offloads the server CPU in terms of networking tasks, offers memory expansion and performs security operations. The smart multifunctional hardware onloads these critical tasks to provide extra computational power to the server at multiple networking layers.

As organizational workloads increase day by day, smartNIC infrastructure is accelerating server performance to reduce busy cycles and latency. Rather than using resources from the server in a traditional infrastructure, this programmable microserver on a chip can perform necessary functions at high speeds itself.

Reasons for implementing smartNIC infrastructure

Below are some of the primary reasons enterprises might consider implementing smartNIC infrastructure.

Overburdened server

The constant pressure of Moore's law boosts the miniaturization of semiconducting technologies every two years. The effects of quantum tunneling, reduction in depletion layer size and development of parasitic capacitance cause interconnect bottlenecks in the server integrated circuit. The reduction in the size of hardware is pushing servers to scale faster and is increasing the overall CPU cost.

Storage and delivery

As the world is set to enter the yottabyte era in 2040, network infrastructures are overloaded with tasks to store data and make it available on demand. To reduce the burden on servers, smartNIC infrastructure offers additional storage for data centers in several gigabytes.

Providing extra storage capacity to the server frees enough cycles for the CPU to perform high-value enterprise tasks and store critical information.

Electricity consumption

Increasing server workloads correlate to extra hardware and equipment needed for proper power management. This hardware consumes extra power and increases the cost of network infrastructure management.

Power distribution units, backup and cooling mechanisms are a possible answer, but smartNIC infrastructure directly eliminates the deployment of extra hardware. Hence, the overall electric consumption decreases with the reduction in core counts and high costs.

Protection against attacks

SmartNIC infrastructure is capable of performing network security functions at the hardware level. These security functions include the following:

  • Packet wrapping.
  • Hashing.
  • Compression and decompression.
  • Encryption and decryption.
  • Cipher algorithm.
  • Firewalling.
  • Protection against DDoS attacks.

A smartNIC can handle security operations and eliminate any threats without disturbing the server. The latest smartNICs have a firewall and advanced DDoS attack defense mechanisms to support distributed security systems.

Considerations to integrate smartNICs in existing network infrastructure

Integrating smartNIC infrastructure into existing networks is a critical task for server performance. Before implementing smartNICs, it's necessary for network teams to assess the network to maximize capabilities. Below are some important requirements for integrating smartNIC infrastructure.

High connectivity

NICs are typically used within network infrastructure for low bandwidths and speeds up to 10 Gbps. However, large enterprises have turned to smartNIC infrastructure for socket acceleration through multiple networking layers to offload and save server cycles for application-specific high-value tasks.

SmartNIC infrastructure is best suited for big enterprises that support large bandwidths to handle high network traffic. These organizations have high-speed networks of more than 100 Gbps.

Ultralow latency

The implementation of smartNICs performs best within a wired infrastructure. Networks with requirements to perform high-speed computing use InfiniBand smartNIC infrastructure. In such networks, remote direct memory access (RDMA) enables direct access over another computer's memory to provide ultralow latency due to the noninvolvement of the kernel.

However, traditional infrastructures prefer Ethernet and face complications in implementing smartNICs. RDMA over Converged Ethernet enables the implementation of Ethernet-based smartNIC infrastructure to offer low latency and higher throughput.

Complex network architecture

SmartNICs are applicable on the server side of the client-server models for enterprises and large-scale cloud providers. Network architectures, such as software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NVF), high-speed computing and complex infrastructures, enable smartNIC implementation for hardware acceleration.

Distributed cloud computing companies from industries such as telecommunications, SaaS, e-commerce and streaming platforms deploy hundreds and thousands of smartNICs for acceleration. These large organizations have network architectures that deliver microservices and handle big data.

Network switch compatibility

A network can use many types of network switches. It is crucial for smartNICs to be compatible and configurable with the existing hardware, such as switches, and OSes in a network.

Each smartNIC vendor offers unique features, compatibility, reconfigurability and connectivity. Some smartNICs might not be compatible with network infrastructure. Choosing a compatible smartNIC for existing network switches depends on interfaces, protocols, programmability, configuration and use cases.

SDN integration

Large enterprises use SDN to connect, manage and accelerate their workflow in multiple workplaces across the world. Integrating smartNIC infrastructure in such networks can offload SDN centralized controller tasks for effective management of the network.

Since smartNICs are programmable, they accelerate data plane and application-specific tasks for routers and switches in SDN. These tasks include traffic forwarding, packet filtration, encryption and decryption, firewalling and more.

NFV capabilities

SmartNICs are also used in networks that employ NFV. The demands of NFV require the implementation of smartNIC infrastructure because multiple VMs run in a shared physical infrastructure to eliminate the need for dedicated hardware.

Implementing smartNICs is similar to deploying virtual microservers in the data networks where each network has its own resources. Examples of NVF acceleration include Virtual Extensible LAN, microsegmentation and load balancing.

Management of smartNICs within network infrastructure

After considering the implementation of smartNICs within the network infrastructure, network teams can turn their focus to managing the smartNICs.

Network monitoring and management

Regular quality checks after the deployment of smartNIC infrastructure are crucial to continuous smart acceleration. A smartNIC can perform regular audits on networking, storage and security functions itself. However, effective network management ensures a smartNIC's seamless performance through monitoring software and critical metrics.

Monitoring tools continuously collect and analyze data, such as latency, speed, throughput and packet loss. Once the tool or smartNIC detects an error, it must automatically troubleshoot to obtain the resolution. In addition to troubleshooting, network management ensures regular updates in smartNIC infrastructure to meet the latest technology needs.

Network orchestration and automation

Continuous discussion about emerging technologies in the world of networking is important for the latest developments and boosting automation. Network orchestration platforms automate smartNIC provisioning to comply with current regulations and standards for security operations.

Lately, some community discussions label NICs, smartNICs and data processing units as the same hardware with different names. These accelerators perform similar tasks at different levels and speeds. However, researchers distinguish smartNIC infrastructure with innovations to support containerization, deliver microservices and deploy customizable technology effectively.

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