The Advantages of Putting a Router on a NIC

Despite all that software has done to transform the networking landscape, it does have its limitations.

Traditional hardware appliances are rapidly being replaced by software-defined networking and network virtualization, offering service providers and others tremendous flexibility in features and vendor choice.

The software/virtual approach can speed time to market, allow more to be done in less space – a critical consideration as the network moves to the edge – and reduce costs. But there are a few things that it does not do as efficiently.

For instance, with software it is less efficient to perform the networking functions that require deterministic performance with high bandwidth, low latency, and a high level of security than it is to use a hardware forwarding packet processing device.

Routing is a perfect example. A physical router uses a dedicated packet processor in hardware to forward traffic while a virtual router performs those functions in a software instance. The physical router is more efficient, but the challenge is to gain that efficiency in a way that doesn’t take up space or add significant costs.

The answer lies in putting a router on a network interface card (NIC), to gain the agility of a virtual router with the performance of a physical unit. Ethernity has achieved that with our Router-on-NIC capabilities, in which the physical router is implemented on an FPGA-based network adapter. It accomplishes the task in a way that clearly differentiates this approach from anything else in the market.

Router-on-NIC provides a high-performance switch/router data plane, including Carrier Ethernet Switch, Layer 3 forwarding, protocol interworking, and traffic management. It is a unique approach to delivering all the benefits of a traditional router with standard NIC functionality, in a smaller footprint with less power consumption. It is all enabled by Ethernity’s patented packet processing and traffic manager design, ported onto an FPGA.

What Router-on-NIC does different from other solutions is that while they can partially offload the data plane – Layer 2 only – in order to accelerate packet processing and delivery, Router-on-NIC can offload the entire data plane, including Layer 3 forwarding and features. This is a far more efficient solution and much more compact.

Other approaches need to handle Layer 3 functions in software, and as a result use CPU cores. The Ethernity approach – in which everything is done on the FPGA on the NIC – requires no CPU core resources. It needs software only for control.

Router-on-NIC provides full routing functionality from an FPGA-based NIC on a standard x86 server for any scenario where a router is needed but space is limited.

It is ideal in use cases where multiple forwarding schemes are needed beyond what a typical SmartNIC can provide. Those include applications such as virtual Broadband Network Gateway (vBNG), 5G User Plane Function (UPF), SD-WAN acceleration, and Cell Site Router.

Virtualizing broadband network gateways allows service providers to keep up with rapidly increasing internet traffic in their network, aggregate access devices, bridge the gap between core and access networks, and enforce QoS policies. But relying solely on software virtualization to accomplish routing tasks can compromise performance speed, determinism, and latency.

For 5G User Plane Function (UPF), Ethernity’s FPGA SmartNIC is ideal for accelerating the 5G data plane. The many key operations associated with UPF are much more efficiently handled by the ENET Flow Processor on an FPGA, which can help keep latency to a minimum. Layer 3 traffic offload and other functions are critical for full UPF.

Similarly, Router-on-NIC addresses virtualization of the 5G Distributed Unit with hardware offload for fronthaul aggregation with full Carrier Ethernet Switch, OAM/CFM, and router functionality.

In SD-WAN environments, each connected campus or branch needs an access router in addition to its own enterprise routers. Instead of adding another physical router, Router-on-NIC can be used inside uCPE to effectively create a “double router,” connecting to the enterprise and carrier networks and allowing customers to use their own uCPE to connect to the carrier network.

In each instance, with its offload of Layer 3 networking functions, Router-on-NIC creates a virtualized solution that can adhere to the strictest requirements of bandwidth, latency, determinism, and security.

The features and capabilities of Router-on-NIC are detailed here.

By Brian Klaff