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Dell readies server with Sonic SmartNIC for branch offices

Companies could install and manage the business application server remotely. The product would be small enough to mount on a wall and use open source Sonic for networking.

Dell plans to offer servers that ship with the open source network operating system Sonic running on a SmartNIC. The branch office device for running local business applications wouldn't require a separate switch or on-site tech support, a company executive said.

The self-contained hardware with a depth of 16 inches would be small enough to mount on a wall to save space, said Ihab Tarazi, chief technology officer for networking at Dell. The company planned to start offering the hardware after its four SmartNIC manufacturing partners released products in mid-2021. Tarazi declined to name the partners.

Dell has chosen Sonic as the network operating system (NOS) because of its microservices-based modular architecture, Tarazi said in a recent interview. Dell can pick and choose the Sonic components it wants to run on the SmartNIC to provide only the necessary network services.

Ihab TaraziIhab Tarazi

Having a bare-bones NOS is critical for running the system within the limitations of a SmartNIC processor. Also, Dell or a managed service provider could install and update the NOS remotely using a customer's internet connection.

"What we want to do is offer the SmartNIC as another type of network switch," Tarazi said. "It's a small network switch."

Currently, Dell offers the PowerEdge VRTX server for single offices. The traditional hardware integrates server, storage, networking and management in a single chassis. The device holds up to four PowerEdge server blades. An internal 10 GbE or 1 GbE switch handles networking.

Use cases

Dell plans to target the new device at enterprises with many branch locations with limited IT staff. Examples include healthcare institutions with clinics and retail chains with stores spread across geographical areas.

A non-technical person would plug the hardware into a power supply and an Ethernet port on the LAN. A server at an enterprise data center or managed service provider would configure the hardware for use and handle all software updates and maintenance remotely, Tarazi said.

"No human needs to touch it," he said.

Companies could use the device to run any business application. For example, a retailer could run an automated checkout system or a camera-based asset tracking system that monitors store shelves to ensure they remain full.

Dell's plans for its Sonic SmartNIC-server combo goes beyond single business locations, Tarazi said. Telcos could use a version of the device tailored for running 5G applications at the network edge.

Dell has worked on Sonic with its original developer, Microsoft, for the last four years. Microsoft developed the Linux-based NOS for its Azure public cloud and contributed it to the Open Compute Project in 2016. Sonic stands for Software for Open Networking in the Cloud.

In May, Dell introduced its first Sonic distribution and started offering the NOS as an option on the company's PowerSwitch open networking product. Dell provides software and hardware support for the data center switch.

Dell's embrace of Sonic could help ease the difficulty enterprises have had in testing the NOS for production use in the future. Among the most critical challenges is the difficulty in finding support and management tools. Companies seriously looking at Sonic include Target, eBay, T-Mobile and Comcast.

By 2024, worldwide revenue from Sonic-powered data center switches will reach $2 billion out of a total market of $15.8 billion, according to IDC.

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