This post was originally published on the Mellanox blog.
Everyone is talking about data processing unit–based SmartNICs but without answering one simple question: What is a SmartNIC and what do they do?
NIC stands for network interface card. Practically speaking, a NIC is a PCIe card that plugs into a server or storage box to enable connectivity to an Ethernet network. A DPU-based SmartNIC goes beyond simple connectivity and implements network traffic processing on the NIC that would necessarily be performed by the CPU, in the case of a foundational NIC.
Some vendors’ definitions of a SmartNIC are focused entirely on the implementation. This is problematic, as different vendors have different architectures. Thus, a SmartNIC can be ASIC–, FPGA–, or system-on-a-chip-based (or SoC). Naturally, vendors who make just one kind of NIC insist that only their type of NIC should qualify as a SmartNIC.
- Excellent price performance
- Vendor development cost high
- Programmable and extensible
- Flexibility is limited to predefined capabilities
- Good performance but expensive
- Difficult to program
- Workload-specific optimization
- Good price performance
- C programmable processors
- Highest flexibility
- Easiest programmability
There are various tradeoffs between these different implementations with regards to cost, ease of programming, and flexibility. An ASIC is cost-effective and may deliver the best price performance, but it suffers from limited flexibility. An ASIC-based SmartNIC, like the NVIDIA ConnectX-5, can have a programmable data path that is relatively simple to configure. Ultimately, that functionality has limits based on what functions are defined within the ASIC. That can prevent certain workloads from being supported.
By contrast, an FPGA-based SmartNIC, such as the NVIDIA Innova-2 Flex, is highly programmable. With enough time and effort, it can be made to support almost any functionality relatively efficiently, within the constraints of the available gates. However, FPGAs are notoriously difficult to program and expensive.
For more complex use cases, an SoC-bassed SmartNIC, such as the NVIDIA BlueField DPU provides what appears to be the best SmartNIC implementation option: good price performance, easy to program, and highly flexible.
Focusing on how a particular vendor implements a SmartNIC doesn’t address what it’s capable of or how it should be architected. NVIDIA actually has products based on each of these architectures. In fact, customers use each of these products for different workloads, depending on their needs. So the focus on implementation—ASIC vs. FPGA vs. SoC—reverses the ‘form follows function’ philosophy that underlies the best architectural achievements.
Rather than focusing on implementation, I tweaked this PC Magazine encyclopedia description to give a working definition of what makes a NIC a DPU-based SmartNIC:
There are two things that I like about this definition. First, it focuses on the function more than the form. Second, it hints at this form with the statement, “…using its own onboard processor… to perform any combination of…” network processing tasks. So the embedded processor is key to achieving the flexibility to perform almost any networking function.
You could modernize that definition by adding that DPU-based SmartNICs might also perform network, storage, security, or GPU virtualization. Also, SmartNICs are ideally suited for telco, cybersecurity, machine learning, software-defined storage, and hyperconverged infrastructure servers, not just web servers.
Here’s how to differentiate the three categories of NICs by the functions that the network adapters can support and use to accelerate different workloads:
Here I’ve defined three categories of NICs, based on their ability to accelerate specific functionality:
- Foundational NIC
- ASIC-based SmartNIC
- SoC-based SmartNIC (DPU)
The foundational, or basic NIC simply moves network traffic and has few or no offloads, other than possibly SR-IOV and basic TCP acceleration. It doesn’t save any CPU cycles and can’t offload packet steering or traffic flows. At NVIDIA, we don’t even sell a foundational NIC any more.
The NVIDIA ConnectX adapter family features a programmable data path and accelerates a range of functions that first became important in public cloud use cases. For this reason, I’ve defined this type of NIC as an ASIC-based SmartNIC, although today on-premises enterprise, telco, and private clouds are just as likely as public cloud providers to need this type of programmability and acceleration functionality. Another name for it could be smarterNIC without the capital “S.”
In many cases, customers tell us they need DPU-based SmartNIC capabilities that are being offered by a competitor with either an FPGA or a NIC combined with custom, proprietary processing engines. But when customers really look at the functions they need for their specific workloads, ultimately they decide that the ConnectX family of SmartNICs provide all the function, performance, and flexibility of other so-called SmartNICs at a fraction of the power and cost. So by the definition of SmartNIC that some competitors use – our ConnectX NICs are indeed SmartNICs. Our FPGA-based NIC (Innova) is also a SmartNIC in the classic sense, and our SoC-based NIC (or BlueField DPU) is the smartest of SmartNICs, to the extent that we could call them Genius NICs
So, what is a SmartNIC? A DPU-based SmartNIC is a network adapter that accelerates functionality and offloads it from the server (or storage) CPU.
Which SmartNIC is the best for each workload or how you should use a SmartNIC… well, the devil is in the details. It’s important to dig into exactly what data path and virtualization accelerations are available and how they can be used. If you’re interested, see Kevin Deierling’s post, Achieving a Cloud-Scale Architecture with DPUs.
For more information about SmartNIC use cases, see the following resources:
- The Next Platform article: Living in the SmartNIC Future
- SDxCentral article: Smart NICs in White Boxes