While software is busy eating the world, we do still need hardware to run that software. One of the things that we are learning is that an x86 processor is not always the best way to solve every computing problem. The most obvious demonstration is the absence of x86 based smartphones; there have been a couple of attempts but nothing successful. Of course, mobile is a very different use case to the data center, and most data centers are full of x86 based servers. What we are seeing is that the x86 CPU in these servers is being supplemented by increasing numbers of specialized processors that handle functions that are better suited to different processor architectures. The first was network cards, NICs that could offload a lot of the computing functions for handling ethernet and TCP packets. Rather than tying up an x86 CPU core for every 1-2GBps of network throughput, a powerful NIC managing the network allows 10GB and even 100GB ethernet to be utilized without saturating the main CPU. We have also seen GPUs being added to servers for some workloads, in particular workloads that suit parallel compute with moderate amounts of data. Another type of offload is computational storage from NGD systems, which uses additional ARM core inside SSDs to process data inside the SSD. Computational storage offload seems to be the reverse of GPU offload, huge data but not as much compute demand, although, with a lot of NGD SSDs, those ARM cores do add up. We have also seen more consolidated offload for virtualization with Amazon’s Nitro architecture offloading network, storage, and server management into a custom add-in card. What is clear is that general-purpose CPUs are not the right solution for every computational task.
The AWS Nitro card appears to have a cousin in the Pensando Distributed Services Card, which seems to be the hardware magic that delivers Pensando software-defined services. The Pensando web site talks a lot about software-defined edge services. I believe the edge that they mean is a telco point of presence, what used to be a telephone exchange, but is now really a datacenter close to the telco’s subscribers. It does appear that the target customer is a cloud provider or telco that delivers cloud-like services, lots of networking and security. The front page of Pensando’s web site suggested to me that this might be a platform for building business applications, it appears to be more for building network applications. Next week I will hear more detail from Pensando at Cloud Field Day 7, join me for the live stream, or catch up with the videos afterward.