An introduction to smart NICs and their benefits

This introduction discusses how smart NICs work and how they can benefit data center servers. It also explores the smart NIC market and available suppliers.

The continued rise of software-based networking, encryption and management and visibility functions can place a significant strain on the processing capacity of server CPUs. Smart network interface cards are becoming an increasingly popular method of offloading intensive packet processing tasks from servers.

The network interface card (NIC) has long been used to connect servers to the Ethernet network. Smart NICs offload certain functions from the server processor, thus freeing cycles to drive application performance. Smart NICs employ specialized processors -- often field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) -- to power their offload capacity. These FPGAs are programmable using standard development tools.

Benefits of smart NICs

Network interface cards have greatly increased the speed at which servers can connect to the network -- from 10 MB to 100 GB. The advent of software-based networking -- with virtual switches and Data Plane Development Kit, for example -- has placed more packet processing requirements on server CPU usage. Typical servers may run software-defined networking, load balancing, encryption, deep packet inspection and other intensive input-output software. This packet processing requires significant CPU capacity, thus necessitating CPU cores to run networking functions instead of mission-critical application processing.

Smart NICs can be programmed to run the network software processes and free up the server processing for its primary application tasks. Additional smart NIC applications can include packet capture, network management and network visibility.

The economic premise of smart NICs is their cost is offset by the application processing benefits of letting the server perform its primary tasks, instead of spending significant time running network applications.

Market segments for smart NICs

Smart NICs represent a viable way to offload packet processing workloads from the primary server cores.

Hyperscale cloud providers -- like Google, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft, for example -- have used smart NIC technology for years to optimize performance of their data center servers. These cloud providers have the technical staff resources to optimize their smart NIC implementations via customized programming.

Leading service providers and telecom operators are investigating the potential for smart NICs to accelerate their network functions virtualization applications. A few leading-edge enterprises have also deployed smart NICs.

Smart NIC suppliers

Customers have a number of supplier options for smart NICs, including independent suppliers and semiconductor vendors. Options vary widely in terms of processors, programmability, performance and cost.

Buyers can choose from vendors such as Broadcom, Ethernity Networks, Intel, Marvell Technology Group, Mellanox Technologies, Napatech, Netronome and Solarflare.

Smart NIC recommendations

The sophistication of networking, security, analytics and management software running on servers continues to grow. With increased network speeds, these tasks can require a significant percentage of server CPU capacity. Smart NICs represent a viable way to offload packet processing workloads from the primary server cores.

Organizations with large data centers should investigate the benefits of smart NIC technology . Smart NICs vary widely in terms of their architecture, capacity and cost. Considering these factors, organizations should select smart NICs to optimize the specific workload that needs to be offloaded from the server.

This was last published in July 2019

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