5G has a need for speed, and just down the road are a host of new 5G services that will demand higher network performance, from augmented/virtual reality applications to connected cars. Where will that extra performance come from? There are two paths that mobile operators can take to boost network performance: they can upgrade and/or add more CPU horsepower to their servers—a costly option—or they can free up server CPU capacity using a SmartNIC.
What’s a SmartNIC?
SmartNICs (also called intelligent NICs) are something that everyone is talking about, however, at this point, there is not a complete understanding of its capabilities. As its name implies, SmartNIC is a network interface card (NIC) that has built-in intelligence that allows it to process the data passing through it. SmartNICs are considered smarter than your average NIC.
A standard NIC functions as an Ethernet network interface between a server and the network. NICs process basic TCP/IP information such as the source and destination IP address, port number and the protocol being used (what we refer to in the industry as 5-tuple information). Because SmartNICs, have built-in intelligence, they in effect performing those tasks reserved for the server CPU, such TCP checksum, load balancing, accelerating cryptography for IPsec and TLS and other CPU-intensive tasks.
Okay, so maybe that definition of a SmartNIC doesn’t get your motor running. Let’s take a look under the hood for a particular load balancing use case and see how SmartNICs can really speed up EPC/5G services. The Evolved Packet Core (EPC) service—which is a software application—is used to implement special engines that create a virtual mesh of line cards inside of applications. For a given user session, traffic should be handled by a specific line card. If data was received by a different line card, it has to resend to that specified line card where the user session resides. This traffic approach is very expensive, as a large amount of east-west traffic can be generated.
This problem can be solved in multiple ways, depending on the deployed solution:
- Specialized load balancers can be used, which will be specific to a particular application.
- Standard Routers with ECMP could be used, but they have to be deployed very intelligently. Also, this approach doesn’t scale.
- Operators can limit the number of servers acting as line cards by managing the server group using a Load Balancer as a Service (LBaaS) feature. This approach, however, wastes resources.
- SmartNICs can be used for load balancing. This is the most effective and efficient option.
Typically, we would have assigned a specific number of cores to perform these functions to do a GTP-U lookup (load balancer) on a standard NIC configuration. Because the SmartNIC is EPC aware, it can do the GTP-U header lookup automatically. But with a SmartNIC, the load balancer effectively goes away. We can shift CPU-intensive tasks such as GTP-U header lookups from the core to the SmartNIC, freeing up our server CPUs to perform other useful tasks. That means all cores can now focus on processing value-added services for EPC/5G applications: deep packet inspection, endpoint detection and response, adaptive bitrate streaming and so on.
It’s also important to note that SmartNICs aren’t just smarter than regular NICs; they’re faster too. Standard NICs support up to 40 Gbps, but SmartNICs typically support speeds of 100 Gbps and 200 Gbps.
SmartNICs Outlook for Mobile Operators
If you imagine that servers are the engines of your network, then using SmartNICs is like having an extra turbo-boost button on your network. And as EPC/5G services are right around the corner, the ability to accelerate network performance is exactly the kind of competitive advantage that mobile operators need.