Networking Trends for 2020

As 5G, IoT, and other applications look to the edge to satisfy increasing demands, communication service providers are seeking solutions that allow them to operate at the network edge with both high bandwidth and low latency, while maintaining a small physical footprint (in terms of space and power consumption) and reducing TCO.

Software-based solutions are a good start, but they simply cannot provide the required performance with CPU-based hardware. The hardware itself must provide acceleration by way of offloading the data path from the CPU. Let’s examine three trends that will become more prominent in 2020 in which hardware-based acceleration will enable edge networking.


#1: Telcos will seek flexibility at the network edge by turning to FPGA-based disaggregated solutions for networking and security.

Network operators want to disaggregate their network equipment so their systems can keep up with evolving standards and requirements, especially at the network edge. However, simply separating the hardware and software is not enough.

Even if telecom companies attain full agility when it comes to software, that only means they can adjust their control plane configurability. As long as they rely on ASIC-based switch silicon, they will be locked into the data plane functionality available on their silicon ASIC (which often lacks many of today’s most advanced features), not to mention being locked into a specific hardware vendor.

FPGAs are the platform that is missing to enable true hardware disaggregation, with complete flexibility in both the control and data planes. They provide the performance of ASIC-based solutions, along with a flexible and programmable platform to assure that operators are free to add or change functionality as needed down the road.

In 2020, the trend will be for operators to use FPGAs for switch/routers at the edge of their networks, as they seek to meet the demands of 5G and IoT.


#2:  Operators will begin to realize that the performance they are currently receiving from software-based user plane functionality (UPF) is nowhere near good enough for full 5G rollouts. They will therefore begin turning to hardware-based acceleration.

One of the key pieces to achieving 5G benchmarks is accelerating the user plane function (UPF), which serves as the data plane of 5G networks. UPF is currently handled in software, but this presents several issues, especially as operators consider moving their UPF toward the network edge.

Several CPU cores must be fully engaged to produce 5G data transfer. This takes up valuable space and power resources at the edge and keeps those cores from being used for the control and application functions for which they are intended.

An ideal UPF deployment would combine the flexibility of software-based virtualization with the performance of well-designed ASIC silicon. The solution is to accelerate the UPF by offloading the data plane to programmable hardware, ideally using FPGAs. Their reprogrammability means that they are flexible enough to handle changes and advances in 5G as the protocols and standards evolve.

In 2020, more operators will turn to FPGA-based hardware to accelerate their user plane functionality at the edge, producing the required performance improvements to achieve 5G at its full potential.


#3:  Telecom operators and enterprises will turn to FPGAs to accelerate SD-WAN deployments as legacy systems struggle to meet new throughput demands.

SD-WAN (software-defined wide area network) technology has been instrumental in allowing global businesses to connect and communicate between their headquarters and branch locations.

However, there are limits to what legacy SD-WAN systems can handle. As enterprises seek to connect hub-and-spoke installations such as data center to data center, cloud aggregation to endpoints, telecom central office to end users, and business campus aggregation to local enterprise devices, companies are relying more on high-speed communication and need bandwidth over 1Gbps. Under these conditions, legacy systems falter.

Rather than investing in an advanced SD-WAN system that can handle higher throughput, businesses can keep their existing server/processor system, while offloading the data plane to an FPGA-based SmartNIC to accelerate their SD-WAN solution.

This also allows companies to instantly and transparently gain these other benefits of FPGA-based SD-WAN acceleration:

  • Higher throughput
  • Reprogrammability to adapt to evolving requirements
  • Usability with existing uCPE (universal customer premises equipment)
  • Extremely low latency
  • Low power consumption
  • Highly deterministic performance
  • Support for IPSec security protocol

In 2020, businesses will increasingly adapt their existing infrastructure to meet growing bandwidth requirements by using FPGA SmartNICs to accelerate their SD-WAN solutions.

The full version of this blog was featured in The Fast Mode’s 2020 Trends and Outlooks series. You can access that article here.

By Brian Klaff