Two Takes On ASIC Design

Making ASICs is a tough task. We learned this last year at Cisco Live Berlin from this conversation with Dave Zacks:

Cisco spent 6 years building the UADP ASIC that powers their next generation switches. They solved a lot of the issues with ASIC design and re-spins by creating some programmability in the development process.

Now, watch this video from Nick McKeown at Barefoot Networks:

Nick says many of the same things that Dave said in his video. But Nick and Barefoot took a totally different approach from Cisco. Instead of creating programmable elements in the ASIC design, then abstracted the entire language of function definition from the ASIC. By using P4 as the high level language and making the system compile the instruction sets down to run in the ASIC, they reduced the complexity, increased the speed, and managed to make the system flexible and capable of implementing new technologies even after the ASIC design is set in stone.

Oh, and they managed to do it in 3 years.

Sometimes, you have to think outside the box in order to come up with some new ideas. Even if that means you have to pull everything out of the box. By abstracting the language from the ASIC, Barefoot not only managed to find a way to increase performance but also to add feature sets to the switch quickly without huge engineering costs.

Some food for thought.

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Running Barefoot – Thoughts on Tofino and P4

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The big announcement this week is that Barefoot Networks leaped out of stealth mode and announced that they’re working on a very, very fast datacenter switch. The Barefoot Tofino can do up to 6.5 Tbps of throughput. That’s a pretty significant number. But what sets the Tofino apart is that it also uses the open source P4 programming language to configure the device for everything, from forwarding packets to making routing decisions. Here’s why that may be bigger than another fast switch.

Feature Presentation

Barefoot admits in their announcement post that one of the ways they were able to drive the performance of the Tofino platform higher was to remove a lot of the accumulated cruft that has been added to switch software for the past twenty years. For Barefoot, this is mostly about pushing P4 as the software component of their switch platform and driving adoption of it in a wider market.

Let’s take a look at what this really means for you. Modern network operating systems typically fall into one of two categories. The first is the “kitchen sink” system. This OS has every possible feature you could ever want built in at runtime. Sure, you get all the packet forwarding and routing features you need. But you also carry the legacy of frame relay, private VLANs, Spanning Tree, and a host of other things that were good ideas at one time and now mean little to nothing to you.

Worse yet, kitchen sink OSes require you to upgrade in big leaps to get singular features that you need but carry a whole bunch of others you don’t want. Need routing between SVIs? That’s an Advanced Services license. Sure, you get BGP with that license too, but will you ever use that in a wiring closet? Probably not. Too bad though, because it’s built into the system image and can’t be removed. Even newer operating systems like NX-OS have the same kitchen sink inclusion mentality. The feature may not be present at boot time, but a simple command turns it on. The code is still baked into the kernel, it’s just loaded as a module instead.

On the opposite end of the scale, you have newer operating systems like OpenSwitch. The idea behind OpenSwitch is to have a purpose built system that does a few things really, really well. OpenSwitch can build a datacenter fabric very quickly and make it perform well. But if you’re looking for additional features outside of that narrow set, you’re going to be out of luck. Sure, that means you don’t need a whole bunch of useless features. But what about things like OSPF or Spanning Tree? If you decide later that you’d like to have them, you either need to put in a request to have it built into the system or hope that someone else did and that the software will soon be released to you.

We Can Rebuild It

Barefoot is taking a different track with P4. Instead of delivering the entire OS for you in one binary image, they are allowing you to build the minimum number of pieces that you need to make it work for your applications. Unlike OpenSwitch, you don’t have to wait for other developers to build in a function that you need in order to deploy things. You drop to an IDE and write the code you need to forward packets in a specific way.

There are probably some people reading this post that are nodding their heads in agreement right now about this development process. That’s good for Barefoot. That means that their target audience wants functionality like this. But Barefoot isn’t for everyone. The small and medium enterprise isn’t going to jump at the chance to spend even more time programming forwarding engines into their switches. Sure, the performance profile is off the chart. But it’s also a bit like buying a pricy supercar to drive back and forth to the post office. Overkill for 98% of your needs.

Barefoot is going to do well in financial markets where speed is very important. They’re also going to sell into big development shops where the network team needs pared-down performance in software and a forwarding chip that can blow the doors off the rest of the network for East <-> West traffic flow. Give that we haven’t seen a price tag on Tofino just yet, I would imagine that it’s priced well into those markets and beyond the reach of a shop that just needs two leaf nodes and a spine to connect them. But that’s exactly what needs to happen.


Tom’s Take

Barefoot isn’t going to appeal to shops that plug in a power cable and run a command to provision a switch. Barefoot will shine where people can write code that will push a switch to peak performance and do amazing things. Perhaps Barefoot will start offering code later on that gives you the ability to program basic packet forwarding into a switch or routing functions when needed without the requirement of taking hours of classes on P4. But for the initial release, keeping Tofino in the hands of dev shops is a great idea. If for no other reason than to cut down on support costs.