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Mellanox Right-Sizes Smart-NIC SoC

September 10, 2019

Author: Bob Wheeler

Although it expects to become part of Nvidia by year-end, Mellanox is pressing forward with its server-connectivity roadmap: it announced second-generation BlueField processors as well as a new Ethernet controller, ConnectX-6 Dx, optimized for cloud data centers. BlueField-2 integrates the ConnectX-6 Dx design as its network subsystem, and it adopts 16nm FinFET technology to boost clock speeds and performance per watt. The company expects to sample both chips and adapters (NICs) in the fourth quarter.

Like its predecessor, BlueField-2 integrates Arm Cortex-A72 CPUs. Whereas the first generation had up to 16 CPUs operating at 1.3GHz, the new chip has 8 CPUs with a 2.5GHz target clock speed. It also removes one memory controller but boosts the speed of its remaining DDR4 SDRAM channel. Mellanox upgraded BlueField’s network subsystem from ConnectX-5 to ConnectX-6 Dx, bringing 200Gbps Ethernet support, in-line IPSec and TLS encryption, and an AES-XTS engine for storage encryption. Because AMD is now shipping Gen4-capable Epyc server processors, the company also narrowed BlueField-2’s PCIe Gen4 interface from 32 to 16 lanes—enough for 200Gbps throughput.

Mellanox announced BlueField-2 for smart NICs, but the chip will serve in storage controllers and security appliances as well. It coined the term I/O processing unit (IPU) to distinguish the SoC from general-purpose embedded processors. Still, BlueField-2 faces both direct and indirect competition. Its primary merchant competitor is Broadcom’s Stingray, which also combines high-performance Arm CPUs with a high-speed Ethernet controller. Some hyperscale-data-center operators design their own smart NICs, and Amazon’s Nitro system is the most similar to BlueField-2. Cloud-service providers that wish to mimic AWS without investing in custom silicon, however, can instead use BlueField-2. Most already offer Nvidia GPUs in their clouds, so the combined companies should have access to the leading prospects.

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