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Xilinx Enters Smart-NIC Market

May 28, 2019

Author: Bob Wheeler

With its $400 million acquisition of Solarflare, Xilinx is bringing important server-networking intellectual property in house. The move enables it to offer Solarflare’s FPGA-based network interface cards (NICs) and move up the value chain. This vertical-integration step is similar to the company’s introduction last year of Alveo cards for server compute acceleration. Xilinx is paying a premium price, however, for privately held Solarflare.

Once a high-flying startup, Solarflare survived the last decade as a small NIC vendor serving vertical markets such as financial technology (fintech), where it achieved particular success in electronic trading. Beyond its specialized but low-volume vertical markets, however, it struggled to compete with larger vendors such as Mellanox. A June 2018 strategic investment from Xilinx, as well as longtime backer Oak Investment Partners, indicated a new direction for the company. In March, Solarflare and Xilinx demonstrated a NIC that uses only an FPGA to handle dual 100Gbps Ethernet ports; that is, the FPGA implements the complete controller function, including the PCIe interface, in addition to offloads.

Xilinx declined to discuss its plans for Solarflare’s products and technology before the deal closing. We expect it will focus on FPGA-based smart NICs using Solarflare’s controller intellectual property. It’ll probably discontinue development of ASIC-based NICs while continuing to support existing products and customers. The big question is its plans for FPGA-based NICs in high-volume cloud applications.

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