Mellanox Spins EZchip/Tilera IP Into BlueField Networking Silicon

By Tiffany Trader

June 1, 2016

Mellanox today introduced the BlueField family of programmable processors, the first product technology based on its $811 million acquisition of fellow Iraeli high-tech company EZchip. The fact that the product announcement is taking place just three months after the completion of the purchase speaks to the strong synergies between EZchip and Mellanox, said Bob Doud, senior director of marketing at Mellanox.

Doud came to Mellanox via EZchip and before that Tilera, which EZchip purchased for $130 million in July 2014. Mellanox is counting on the EZchip/Tilera intellectual property – the energy-efficient Tile multicore ARM CPU and the SkyMesh coherent on-chip interconnect scheme that enables scaling to more than one hundred cores on a single chip – to broaden its product portfolio and open up new markets.

The BlueField multicore SoC staples together Mellanox’s latest-generation ConnectX network acceleration technology with an array of Tile-based ARM A72 cores. Mellanox is targeting the fully-programmable Ethernet networking silicon at storage and networking applications.

“The multicore processor piece that originated with Tilera brings in very advanced IP to Mellanox,” said Doud. “Arguably Tilera was seen in the industry as the leader in high scale-out multicore processing. We had a 72-core processor in 2011, ahead of Cavium and certainly Intel. We really were the technology and thought leader. Revenue wise we were still in start-up mode, but when we talked to customers, they were eager to try the technology.

“Mellanox has over 100 patents in how to build this mesh of cores,” he continued. “We can scale up well above 100 cores on a chip, and we’ve figured out how to do cache coherency. These are big problems that folks like Intel are still working on.”

EZchip had been developing a 100-core ARM chip, but when the agreement with Mellanox was announced in September 2015, the development team was retasked to begin integrating the mesh architecture into the Mellanox portfolio. While Tilera and EZchip were focused more on big iron, Mellanox has pivoted the IP, scaling it down to play nicely with its adapters and give it a storage/networking play for the cloud, datacenter and security space. Mellanox didn’t specify the exact number of ARM cores that would be employed on the SoC, but a graphic supplied by the company depicts 16 cores in a 4×4 array. The associated text denotes the possibility of arrays with a smaller or larger number of cores.

Mellanox BlueField graphic

As Mellanox enters into the embedded processor space, one important target market is flash-based storage and NVMe. “We saw a need for an ideal storage controller chip,” said Doud. “This play in storage is really a silicon play. It’s selling silicon to the large storage OEMs – the EMCs, Hitachis and IBMs of the world – who are building storage appliances with flash and who need a storage controller that has all the right attributes and those attributes include really high-performance networking because the new storage architecture is scale-out. It’s a bunch of 1U, 2U appliances connected via fabric, 100GE or InfiniBand. That kind of thins out the market as to who can make such a controller. You need at least 20Gig just to service a single NVMe drive.”

Doud goes on to say that what Mellanox is doing with BlueField is designing a device that has a lot of PCI bandwidth on the south to talk to an array of drives (PCIe 3 and 4 are supported) and up to 100G fabric bandwidth on the north to talk to the fabric. Hardware acceleration is there to handle tasks like the NVMe over fabric protocol translation. ConnectX handles storage offloads like erasure coding for RAID.

“The addition of an array of ARM cores provides a highly programmable storage controller that can run not only the control plane functions to manage the array and even touch the data path, it can manipulate the data doing deduplication, data compression/decompression as well as disk sector encryption/decryption,” added Doud.

On the networking side, Mellanox is looking to sell adapters that integrate BlueField for applications in datacenters, cloud and security. The company is currently envisioning two models for this market. One, which Doud refers to as the sandbox, begins life as BlueField with just an operating system running on ARM cores and some essential plumbing enabling a hyperscaler like Google or Facebook to develop the software that it needs to run on those ARM cores. The datacenter operator develops the application code, and ConnectX and the hardware on the device helps to channel the flows to the right place and get them in and out of the cores. That second model is for Mellanox to develop the code for BlueField and sell it as a pure turnkey play much like they would ConnectX. For this angle, Mellanox would likely work with software partners to offer versions aimed at IPsec, SSL or intrusion protection — all turn-key and ready to go.

Doud emphasized the security features of BlueField, which are prompting government interest. “There’s a certain degree of assuredness when you can lock it down and say this card’s job is to do network acceleration and security and it’s a contained environment with known code,” he said. “The new DOD model is to scale out with virtualized servers and it worries them to think what kind of exposure they may be getting that they can’t necessarily control because they don’t control VMware or KVM or other virtualized environments. They hope the community has done a good job of isolation.”

“Synergy-wise, what Mellanox sees is that compute is no longer relegated to just being in a server,” said Doud. “We think that the new model, the new hyperscale datacenter, is that things are blurring. You need compute in the storage appliance. It needs compute because you can add a lot of value functions right there close to the storage drive, things like deduplication and even other value add, e.g., some big data functions. The network itself is becoming more intelligent. Ethernet switches were really dumb 10 years ago; now they do L2 and L3 and they are starting to do other interesting functions. More and more we’re seeing they’re not just relegated to different encapsulation or decapsulation. Mellanox InfiniBand switches actually can do atomic compute operations on InfiniBand packets as they move through their switches. And in the adapter space, Mellanox has been preaching for years the need and the value of offloading certain functions from Intel and having a programmable array of multicore right there on the adapter takes that to the next level.

“On the NPU side, the network processors, you can see the synergy with our switching story. We have Spectrum, a pretty advanced L2/L3 switch, market consistent functionality going up against Broadcom and their line of switches, but what we now can bring to the table with this technology for the network processor is we can do 400G to 600G and our next-gen will be a terabit of network processor performance. That’s fully programmable in C code. You’re bringing the ability to not just mess with some headers and send the packet out a different port, but you can do security operations on packets as they move through or collective operations on the payload of the packet. So programmability is really the new differentiating capability. Some of this is capability is seen in the Dune products [from Broadcom], but what we do in our NPUs is vastly more sophisticated. We are not announcing this today, but it is certainly a vision.”

Mellanox is building BlueField on a 28nm process, which Linley Group analyst Tom Halfhill, who was briefed ahead of the announcement, characterized as a necessary compromise, one they couldn’t really avoid given the circumstances. “Putting production at late 2017 or early 2018, the 28nm technology will be getting dated. The reason for sticking with 28nm was that EZchip was already pretty far along in the project when the Mellanox acquisition happened. They didn’t want to do a complete switch where they would have to transition to a smaller process technology and change the whole design of the processor at the same time. Even Intel follows this Tick-Tock cycle, alternating process shrinks and process design to keep the design complexity down and stay on schedule.”

As for the potential low-power server play that once grabbed the imagination of HPCers, Doud explained that the cores that Tilera was building never really had the floating point performance required by HPC applications. “They were integer cores,” he said. “They were much more attuned to doing packet processing than they would be doing weather modeling. That was really a market choice. We chose not to go after HPC.”

He added that Tilera was, however, used in some HPC applications, but at the front end to do some of the more network-heavy stuff like sending traffic to the right nodes of a cluster. “It was more of a datacenter kind of use case,” he added. “But things are blurring now. You used to be able to put nice boxes around what’s HPC.”

While it might be fun to speculate whether Mellanox would ever direct the Tilera IP back at the server market, Doud was very clear that this is not part of Mellanox’s near-term plan. “The decisions that went into building BlueField were really to make this a combination of a great storage processor and a great networking front-end to Intel. It was not to displace Intel in a server. Companies like Cavium and Qualcomm — those guys are going after Intel. We’re taking a pass on that for now – in part because you have to pick your battles – and Mellanox is very much a networking-centric company, but secondly it’s an unproven proposition. There’s been a lot of talk about ARM killing Intel for a number of years and I think people are now beginning to wonder if that’s really going to happen or if it was a play to get Intel’s pricing back in line.”

Mellanox says it will begin sampling BlueField silicon in Q1 of 2017, with the goal of hitting production by mid-year 2017 and ramping revenue in 2018. Additional specifics about the first chip, a more precise timeline and pricing information should be ready by this winter, said the company.

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