AMD announced this week its intention to acquire Pensando for $1.9 billion. Pensando is a manufacturer of accelerator chips for encoding, formatting, filtering and more generally manipulating data leaving or arriving on the Ethernet network. Through this takeover, AMD intends to position itself against Intel and Nvidia in the emerging sector of DPUs, namely small chips that are placed on network cards to relieve servers of a whole host of purely technical operations.
The challenge of DPUs is to release power on servers without investing in more powerful processors, which, in a context of shortage of high-end chips, is appropriate. In the process, the DPUs carry the prospect of making the processing of the network flow a little more interesting.
Goldman Sachs, for example, uses network cards based on Pensando processors to perform monitoring, security and storage functions that improve its productivity, without penalizing the execution speed of its applications.
Automate network processing
Network cards made smarter by grafting DPUs are called smartNICs. Analysts predict that their sales will explode with large companies, anxious to imitate in their datacenters the automation of public cloud giants.
“An interesting point of smartNICs is that they provide new maintenance functions which constitute services in their own right. These services enrich the administration consoles with new automation and will allow service providers to market new support,” observes analyst Bob Laliberte, from the ESG consulting firm.
In terms of application possibilities, the Pensando DPU is based on an ARM core, for which there are a large number of functional libraries. And it is programmed with the P4 language, a standard in writing network rules. In particular, this P4 language makes it possible to customize a whole range of priorities among the data flows, so that the network traffic corresponds most closely to the needs of a company.
Position yourself against Intel and Nvidia
Before AMD, Intel became interested in DPUs in 2019 by acquiring Barefoot Networks, a manufacturer of chips dedicated to network routing and which were initially intended to equip Ethernet switches. Intel’s idea was to use them on smarNICs to be inserted into servers. This is exactly the model followed by AMD, in the sense that the Pensando processor is now mainly found in Ethernet switches.
For its part, Nvidia, a specialist in accelerator chips for computing (GPUs), has decided to develop DPUs itself; this is its line of BlueField processors. Nvidia has partnered with VMware to implement its NSX virtual network functions within BlueField.
Pensando, Intel and Nvidia each position their DPU from a different perspective. Pensando speeds up network functions. Nvidia analyzes the traffic with artificial intelligence to optimize its fluidity. Intel probes the data to circumscribe any risk of incident in real time.
According to Silvano Gai, one of Pensando’s managers, companies are currently buying SmartNICs to collect information about their traffic, without slowing it down. Before the advent of smartNICs, collecting this information meant either laying probes between cables, which was prohibitive for throughput, or deploying Taps, very expensive equipment that splits traffic to send a copy to a data server. to analyse.
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Network: AMD buys Pensando to get into DPUs
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