Ethernity makes FPGA SmartNICs – what are they and why are they so important?
FPGAs are programmable chips, similar to CPUs, but with a big difference. CPUs process data sequentially and FPGAs process in parallel. Sequential processing is great for computation and for application control, but not so great for networking and security.
In those areas, the millions of traffic flows need parallel processing, which is by nature optimized for handling CPU-intensive networking and security functions.
When you stick a programmable FPGA onto a network interface card (NIC), you get a SmartNIC that can be housed in a server to handle data transmission. Then if you add routing software as Ethernity has, you gain huge efficiency in your network. You use many fewer CPU cores, saving space and power, and you reduce latency in data transmission.
When it comes to 5G, the technology requires exceptionally low latency to support target applications. That’s what makes FPGAs so important in a 5G world. A recent white paper jointly published by several Chinese telecom operators called for SmartNICs that can handle data forwarding inside the NIC in order to reduce latency. Ethernity is well-positioned to provide that technology.
Ethernity enables edge computing; why is that so important?
When you’re dealing with networking in a huge data center, it’s nice to save space and reduce power consumption, but that’s not critical to the success of the network. It’s a different story at the edge of the network. Content providers have moved many of their services to the cloud and then further toward the edge, closer to end users, to reduce delays in transmission time.
At the edge, space and power are particularly rare and valuable resources, so operators need to minimize their usage of them as much as possible. An FPGA SmartNIC can reduce the data forwarding and security requirements from 24 or 36 CPU cores to just one or two. That frees the remaining cores to be dedicated to the tasks they were best designed to handle, computation and management.
The bottom line is that with Ethernity far fewer servers are required at the edge, saving on physical space, power consumption, and costs. Ethernity can save operators up to 80 percent over software-based solutions that run over CPUs.
All the talk about 5G – don’t we already have it?
Actually, no. Most operators currently advertising 5G are actually providing enhanced 4G service that makes use of some of the principles of 5G. Few of them have installed enough of the new required infrastructure yet to offer true 5G. Even in China, which is considered far ahead of most of the rest of the world in preparing for 5G, it is estimated they will need some 10 million new 5G cell towers. They have installed only about 600,000 through 2020.
The nice thing about 5G is that it’s a greenfield technology. It requires new equipment almost across the board. This allows operators to start considering alternatives to the traditional single-vendor closed architecture of previous generations and has led to a new concept, OpenRAN. What OpenRAN does is disaggregate the radio access network so operators can choose the best solution for each device or node of the network.
Ethernity believes that FPGA SmartNICs are ideal for OpenRAN because they offer interoperability, flexibility, and full programmability, making them futureproof. Unlike the monolithic proprietary hardware operators have relied on in the past, FPGA SmartNICs can be repurposed or reprogrammed while deployed in the field to handle new protocols or security algorithms as new technology develops. This represents a huge savings for operators.
Who is currently buying the solutions Ethernity is selling?
We work with telecom operators, manufacturers, and system integrators. We usually sell to manufacturers or system integrators, who in turn get those products and solutions into operators’ networks.
We have already deployed our technology in more than 800,000 systems worldwide, connecting over a hundred million users. Not all of that is in telecom, by the way. For example, we also have made deals with top military companies to supply them with avionics switches that use the same networking technology for their aircraft.
But we are especially anticipating the mass deployment of 5G networks, since we have solutions that are optimized for the specific needs of 5G. We are currently deep into both lab and field trials of those solutions with operators and manufacturers and we anticipate initial deployment in the second half of 2021.
Who else is selling the types of 5G and edge solutions that you sell?
There are a number of SmartNIC manufacturers in the market. Some companies don’t use an FPGA in their SmartNIC but rather use multiple CPU cores directly on the card. There are also SmartNICs designed for data centers or large cloud deployments and those that include programming to address specific sectors such as finance or medicine.
Others do offer FPGA SmartNICs, but more often than not, those cards are just shells, with no real programming on them. This means they require a partner to provide the intelligence.
Ethernity has been working in the telecom networking space for 18 years, and our ACE-NIC family of SmartNICs is rich with telecom-specific networking features. Because our technology is so well-developed, we can offer shorter time-to-market and cost savings than other companies. Another primary difference between our cards and those of competitors is that our cards have a full router on the FPGA on the card. No one else has such capabilities, and this is a very attractive feature for operators and manufacturers, especially when it comes to 5G.
Is this something that Huawei was doing, and now that so many operators are turning away from Huawei, do you benefit?
Huawei is one of those monolithic end-to-end equipment providers. Their strength was in offering inexpensive but high-performing equipment, which is why they were so popular. But that monolithic approach meant operators sacrificed a lot of flexibility when they partnered with Huawei or similar vendors. They were locked in since those vendors’ products tend not to interoperate with the components and devices from other vendors.
Operators also sacrificed the advantages of futureproofing, driving up the total cost of ownership. Once equipment from Huawei or Ericsson or Nokia is field deployed, you cannot upgrade it without replacing it entirely, which is prohibitively expensive.
Now we have a unique opportunity for operators to re-evaluate the way they have been building their networks. 5G networks essentially require all new equipment, yet Huawei has been eliminated as a possible vendor in many countries.
While some operators are taking the path of least resistance and swapping out Huawei with another monolithic vendor’s closed system, others such as Dish Network and Vodafone are committing to OpenRAN and are using this opportunity to seek more open, disaggregated solutions.
Ethernity is a big proponent of this model for installing 5G networks, and we are ready with multiple top-of-the-line solutions for mass 5G deployment. For example, we recently signed a $1.5 million licensing contract in India, where there is a push toward Made in India products and away from reliance on a single vendor. We licensed our technology to an OEM for Indian-made OpenRAN products, and we can also market those products globally.
How big is the market for these solutions and for you?
5G is definitely coming. It might not have the immediate impact that some operators are promising, but there will be more and more deployments over the next few years. As for the OpenRAN market within 4G and 5G, it has been estimated in the tens of billions of dollars.
Add to that our evolution from a technology company to a complete solution provider for OEMs and system integrators, and the opportunity for growth at scale is massive. We at Ethernity are eager to participate.