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The role of ARM in NFV platform development

Semiconductor manufacturer ARM wants to be one of the top two sources for NFV platform silicon. Networking analyst Lee Doyle says the company and its partners will likely succeed.

ARM Holdings and its partners are positioning themselves as the leading semiconductor alternative to Intel for network functions virtualization (NFV) platforms. To support NFV platform workloads, the ARM consortium leverages its experiences supplying smartphone/tablet microprocessors and a wide range of other telecom equipment.

Who is ARM?

ARM is a British-based semiconductor manufacturer known for its dominance in the delivery of central processing units (CPUs) for mobile phones. ARM has recently been promoting use of its 64-bit designs for networking and telecom applications (as well as servers). Its partners include such network silicon heavyweights as Broadcom, Cavium and Freescale.

NFV silicon requirements

The telecom market has a range of unique workload requirements that challenge semiconductor manufacturers. Telecom equipment can vary from large, highly scalable platforms that support millions of users (and cost $1 million or more), to small access devices costing $1,000 or less. In addition, telecom applications can be highly compute-intensive and storage-intensive, or require high-end I/O for low latency bandwidth transport.

In addition, the telecom industry has specific, unique requirements, including:

  • Low latency to support real-time applications such as voice and video
  • High reliability -- 99.999% uptime
  • Efficient power utilization
  • Broad software ecosystem -- independent software vendors (ISVs) to support virtualization, software-defined networking (SDN), NFV, IT and telecom-specific applications

ARM NFV efforts

ARM's partners are starting to deliver its 64-bit chipsets, which can handle a wide range of server workloads. These chipsets are also being positioned as alternatives to Intel's x86 chips for the NFV platform. ARM and it partners participate in a wide range of NFV and networking standardization efforts, including OPNFV and the OpenDataPlane project. ARM has demonstrated interoperability with its 64-bit chips for OPNFV (e.g., Freescale and Cavium).

ARM partners plan to leverage their networking experience to develop unique data acceleration capabilities. ARM is known for its ability to excel in the delivery of low-power designs. ARM partners are working with all the major network equipment providers, including ALU, Cisco, Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia -- for various types of network equipment, including base stations, Ethernet switches, routers, etc.

ARM and its partners have also created Linaro, a non-profit engineering organization dedicated to open source development of virtualization and networking middleware to support the adoption of ARM software. ARM is working to recruit NFV ISVs to port their software to 64-bit ARM but is significantly behind Intel in terms of ISV support.

ARM network silicon partners

ARM licenses its CPU designs to leading network silicon suppliers, including:

  • Broadcom -- the leading supplier of silicon for Ethernet switches (recently acquired by Avago)
  • Cavium -- provider of a range of network silicon supporting I/O from 1 Gbps to 100 Gbps
  • Freescale -- a leading supplier of silicon for embedded systems, including networking (notably, wireless base stations)

Other ARM partner efforts related to NFV include AMD's relationship with ENEA for virtualization software and AppliedMicro's work on virtual set-top box (vSTB) proof of concepts.

Most of the leading networking/telecom silicon manufacturers are actively migrating their next-generation platforms to the ARM platform -- which is likely to make ARM a significant player in the industry over the next few years.

Conclusions and recommendations

Advances in commercial off-the-shelf technologies and the increased acceptance of SDN/NFV are changing the market for network/telecom silicon platforms. Platform suppliers will need to deliver high-performance and low-latency at scale, while meeting telecom reliability requirements. ARM is likely to become the leading alternative to Intel for the NFV platform. The ability of the ARM consortium to develop a broad NFV and SDN ISV ecosystem will be a critical factor in its ability to gain market share in NFV workloads.

Next Steps

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This was last published in September 2015

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