I think, as an industry, we may owe HPE an apology regarding The Machine. I’ve always been intrigued by the concept. The goal was to re-think computing inside of a data center. The vision of The Machine was to switch the focus of solving compute problems via memory vs. CPU at the core. The Machine orchestrates data across a low latency network of nodes, all sharing memory and other precious resources. Such as all early visions, the execution is slightly different than the initial concept. VMware’s announcement around SmartNICs helps paint some of the picture of the future. Or at least the infrastructure for the future.
What did VMware announce?
Project Monterey extends the control plane to the SmartNIC. One of the things I asked VMware for when they announce NSX after the purchase of Nicira was the ability to run NSX on physical network devices. I envisioned being able to virtualize network top of rack (TOR) switches in the same way we virtualize x86 hardware. VMware and their partners could then extend the TOR functionality for functions such as storage protocol optimization.
VMware announced at VMworld 2020 is extending NSX and the entire VMware Cloud Foundation control plane to the SmartNIC inside the x86 server. By extending NSX, VSAN, and other complementary data center services to the SmartNIC, VMware builds a familiar abstraction in the private data center.
The idea of leveraging SmartNICs to extend the capabilities of the data center isn’t new. AWS introduced Nitro SmartNICs into its data center several years ago. AWS breaks apart the AWS EC2 hypervisor sending some functions to the Nitro SmartNIC function. Think of a NIC card that’s the only function is to optimize storage encryption. The result is the ability to encrypt data in motion at line speed.
Take this idea to something such as Intel’s P4 Tofino platform. As VMware and their OEM partners get good at extending the control plane to the SmartNIC, the next level of abstraction is the TOR. The Intel’s Barefoot network platform provides a programmable FPGA in a dense port package. In theory, VMware could run VCF to these Intel switches. The end result? I/O needed to provide the memory interconnects for a distributed computing model that supports an HPE Machine architecture.
What’s more than likely is that the industry continues to push functions down to the SmartNIC. If I where a betting man, I’d say the goal is to enable VMware’s vision for growing their Telco business. What happens when you place a SmartNIC in the footprint of something such as an Intel NUC.
Combine that footprint and power with 5G. Telco providers could provide a wide range of edge services that run customer applications in a highly secure shared environment. I could easily see a Verizon deploying a couple of hundred of these devices within a Stadium and selling the extra virtualized compute capacity to a third-party app developer.
It’s not hard to imagine an app that creates clusters of fantasy football players. The app would create pools and groups based on the physical location of the player. The fantasy football app runs on a completely separate logical security domain than the 5G network providing traditional telco and internet services.
The present, you can expect to get better utilization out of the current data center architecture. VMware Cloud Foundation powered SmartNIC should have a similar impact to AWS Nitro. Your existing x86 workloads will benefit from distributed network and storage optimization without modifying the existing code. VMware will do what VMware does best, optimizing x86 workload without much fuss from application developers.