2021 Trends, Part III: Operators Demand Router Functionality Integrated into Servers

The following is Part III of our annual Trends blog series.  To read the other installments, see Part I and Part II.

Traditionally, servers have made use of network interface cards (NICs) to achieve basic Layer 2 Ethernet connectivity. The idea of including Layer 3 routing and forwarding, however, has never been included within a server, as it is beyond the capability of server CPUs. Routing has always necessitated an additional device.

Recently, the advent of Network Function Virtualization has led to virtual routers (vRouters), which can bring Layer 3 into the server. The issue with that is that vRouters are exceedingly CPU-intensive and take up so much space of the server’s capacity that the primary functions that are meant to run on the server are limited. So operators have had to choose between external routers that add hardware and complicate management and vRouters that burn CPU cores and might therefore compromise performance.

In parallel, NICs have been developing into SmartNICs, adding offload capabilities to relieve servers of some of their most CPU-intensive functions. This has eased the way for NFV, but it still has failed to introduce manageable, affordable, and high-performance routing into the server.

As technology becomes ever-more demanding, situations arise where neither external routers nor vRouters running on CPUs work very well. For instance, 5G distributed units (DU) require a router to communicate with multiple 5G centralized units (CU) throughout the Radio Access Network. DUs also perform multiple CPU-intensive functions on the data passing through them, such that there is no room on a standard server for both DU and routing functionality. Unless operators install very high-end servers that can handle the additional vRouter software, their alternative is an external cell-site router. That adds time and overhead, in the form of another hop in the chain, and it creates a management nightmare, thanks to the addition of another device with yet another platform to integrate into the network.

Ethernity Networks anticipated this issue when it developed its Router-on-NIC feature, which leverages the power of FPGAs to provide a fully-operational router contained on a SmartNIC. Router-on-NIC provides a high-performance switch/router data plane including Carrier Ethernet Switch, Layer 3 forwarding, protocol interworking, and traffic management. It contains the true packet processing and forwarding capabilities of a physical router implemented on an FPGA-based network interface card, along with all standard NIC functionality.

This saves on space and power consumption, which is a particular concern at the network edge. It also means that operators can avoid an additional hop by enabling the traffic to go directly to the router that is located on the SmartNIC within the server.

The 5G distributed unit is merely one example where Router-on-NIC is a useful solution that provides the best of both worlds. It enables a paradigm shift in many other applications as well.

As operators have become more aware of this option, they have begun demanding it from their OEMs. Lately, Ethernity has noticed an increase in OEMs and system integrators requesting Router-on-NIC functionality, often being sent to Ethernity from the operators. This trend is expected to snowball in 2021, as more and more operators realize the potential applications of a router that can be included within the server, via Ethernity’s ACE-NIC SmartNICs.