SONiC’s Next Home: The SmartNIC

It’s an exciting time to be a part of today’s networking evolution. All the pieces are finally falling into place to help us truly realize a software-defined network. SONiC is an open-source, containerized network operating system (NOS) that runs on a variety of ASICs and switch hardware. SONiC is quickly gaining traction in cloud, Telco, and enterprise deployments. A 2021 Gartner report predicts 40% of organizations running large data center networks will use SONiC in production.

As part of our ongoing commitment in supporting SONiC innovations with the open source community, Dell Technologies is now working with several industry leaders in bringing SONiC to SmartNICs/DPUs. Running a NOS on a SmartNIC/DPU in a server is a logical next step for SONiC where it can help optimize data center performance by getting networking functions as close to the workload as possible. It will also help service providers, Telco’s, and large enterprises roll out new services in the cloud and at edge locations without the need for expensive, power-hungry, or purpose-built networking hardware.

Besides supporting SONiC on SmartNICs/DPUs, Dell envisions theP4 programming language as the interface to allow network programmability, regardless of the card that runs the NOS. That means customers will be able to choose SmartNICs/DPUs from Dell partners including NVIDIA, Intel, and Pensando while using P4 as the programming layer across the SmartNIC/DPU fleet.

Moving to the SmartNIC/DPU

As edge and cloud services continue to grow, there’s a greater demand to support network functions closer to the workload. Innovations such as DPDK enable off-the-shelf CPUs to run network and security functions more efficiently.

Another option is the SmartNIC/DPU, which offloads networking and security functions from the server CPU so that the processor’s full power is available for application performance. SmartNICs/DPUs have acceleration engines to tackle a variety of tasks including encryption/decryption, firewalling, packet inspection, routing, storage networking, and more.

As networks evolve it’s important to note that SmartNICs/DPUs running SONiC will be able to be used for network monitoring, telemetry, and observability. Telemetry and observability are particularly critical for applications and services that are highly distributed across cloud and edge instances.

SmartNICs/DPUs are far more flexible than traditional, fixed-function ASICs. Organizations will also appreciate how they also use less power and can be easily added to existing servers in data centers, colos, cell towers, and other locations. And because they run inside the servers, organizations can deploy virtualized network and security functions instead of purpose-built hardware. This can save on power, cooling, and operational costs. SmartNICs/DPUs are ideal for locations where physical space is at a premium.

We at Dell are extremely excited to be working with the open-source community to fine-tune a version of SONiC that will be optimized for SmartNICs/DPUs. And because SONiC is modular, customers will be able to deploy only the protocols they need to maximize efficiency.

Leveraging P4 For Programmability

Dell is also taking advantage of P4, an open programming language originally developed to customize the packet pipeline processing in ASICs. We have been monitoring how P4 is being adopted for wider use cases, including as a common programming language for SONiC running on SmartNICs/DPUs.

Because SONiC may be running on hundreds or even thousands of SmartNICs/DPUs, we feel it’s important to have a common interface to program the NOS. P4 enjoys a robust community of contributors, and a variety of P4 programs are already available. Users have the flexibility of designing their own programs or drawing from the pool of existing programs developed by the community. And because P4 is open, users can also customize existing programs to suit their needs.

By combining SONiC, SmartNICs/DPUs, and P4, Dell is leveraging the best elements of open-source networking. And as organizations look to optimize data center, cloud, and edge networking, Dell’s SONIC/SmartNIC/DPU initiative will help them get network and security functions as close to the workload as possible to maximize performance, enable fine-grained network programmability, and benefit from a robust open-source ecosystem that continues to develop and refine the SONiC NOS.

To find out more about Dell, SONiC, and SmartNICs/DPUs, listen to the PacketPushers podcast.