How Operators Can Pace Their 5G UPF Investments

At this point in the 5G rollout, it’s safe to say that most providers are satisfied with the capacity of their UPF (User Plane Functionality) software. As the primary data processing platform between the Radio Access Network and the 5G core, 50-100Gbps is sufficient at this time.

Of course, it won’t always be that way, which is why a scalable, pay-as-you-go solution makes sense. And it is why Ethernity announced last week a pay-as-you-go 200G 5G UPF forwarding offloading solution. It is a solution designed to allow operators to invest in stages as 5G demand grows.

This solution incorporates two ACE-NIC100 FPGA SmartNICs – cascading them within a single server – within a specially developed flexible 400Gbps fabric. The ACE-NIC100 provides 100Gbps of routing and UPF forwarding offload from the server CPU to its onboard FPGA. Then a second ACE-NIC100 can be easily integrated into the same low-cost server when demand grows sufficiently to warrant 200Gbps.

This enables mobile network operators to start with lower-cost servers and a lower-cost SmartNIC, then scale as they gain users and add data-hungry applications to the network. This is the heart of the pay-as-you-go model.

It is important to note that the second ACE-NIC100 enhances the UPF solution by acting as redundancy for both the NIC card and the network interfaces. Another option is to make use of a larger FPGA to host the same design that is currently available on the lower-cost FPGA of the ACE-NIC100. With the larger FPGA, it is possible to support 200G router and UPF offload on a single FPGA SmartNIC.

Industry analyst Roy Chua, principal at AvidThink, offered his positive perspective on this approach:

“With 5G rolling out in stages across mobile network operators worldwide, Ethernity’s innovative pay-as-you-go approach for its SmartNICs provides the opportunity for network operators to appropriately modulate their spend by tying costs to a metric related to incoming revenue,” Chua observed. “This is in addition to the benefit of being able to completely offload 5G UPF data path to the SmartNIC from the server CPU.”

In the announcement, Ethernity CEO David Levi explained the logic behind the two-card solution.

“Software-based UPF solutions require expensive servers with tens of cores to achieve even 50Gbps,” he said. “This means a large initial capital expense to operators, with no guarantee that it will be able to scale when demand increases. Ethernity’s 200G UPF offload solution allows operators to invest conservatively at first and to scale to 200G as it becomes necessary.”

As a result, Levi added, valuable space on the server CPU is freed up for additional functions like caching and deep packet inspection that are fully integrated with the Ethernity solution.

By Brian Klaff