Microsoft has begun deploying custom network interface controller (NIC) hardware in its own data centres to offload the burden of software-defined networking (SDN) from the server processor chips, and provide flexibility to meet future demand.
The company said it has begun using hardware it calls the Azure SmartNIC in its data centres, which incorporates Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) logic that enables the network adapter to be reprogrammed as required to deliver whatever capabilities Microsoft requires.
This is currently being used to offload from the server CPU the functionality of the virtual switch that routes traffic between virtual machines, in order to free up processing power and deliver more predictable latency.
The move demonstrates the demands that modern SDN protocols can place on infrastructure, although Microsoft's data centres are likely to be an extreme example.
"We're using FPGA technology that was introduced for Bing," said Albert Greenberg (left), distinguished engineer for networking development at Microsoft.
"It was used to speed up the indexing and searching for Bing, and we had that technology in house so we applied it to the NIC, and we're getting incredible economics from that, much better than if we had to do it on the server itself and chew up the compute power."
However, using an FPGA in Azure SmartNIC means that the hardware is also reconfigurable, a key advantage in the rapidly evolving world of the software-defined data centre and SDN in particular.
"No one can tell what SDN's going to be like in a year, so we need to have something reconfigurable that we can program with whatever the new function is that we want to light up, and not just for networking," Greenberg told V3.
"But if we want to do compression, if we want to do processing for machine learning, we can program that in and offload it on every single server to this FPGA.
"We're a software company, and this allows us to roll out hardware at the speed of software. We can change the FPGA programming every week. Not that we'll do it every week, but we could do if we needed to, to take care of any problem."
Greenberg was speaking to V3 after receiving the 2015 ACM SIGCOMM Award from the Association of Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Data Communication for his contributions to the networking industry.
Most Microsoft customers are unlikely to need a solution like Azure SmartNIC in their own data centres at present, but the company is busy incorporating other capabilities and features it has developed to operate Azure and services like Office 365 into the next version of its server platform, Windows Server 2016.
These include a scalable network controller for automated configuration of the network infrastructure, a software load balancer for high availability and performance, plus the Azure Service Fabric announced earlier this year, which is intended to provide the orchestration capabilities to enable customers to build applications and services from smaller components dubbed microservices.
"Service Fabric, which we announced at the Build event this year, allows us to roll out very elegant little microservices which we can then stitch together - we can have one for the software load balancer, one for the VPN and so forth - and then Service Fabric lets us take care of the resilience and the whole engineering pipeline," he said.
Microsoft has just released a new Technical Preview of Windows Server 2016, which showcases many of these enhancements. The full release is scheduled for next year.
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