Since its founding in 2013 Barefoot Networks has created quite a stir in the networking world. The Silicon Valley-based startup raised over $155 million, launched a programmable Ethernet switch called Tofino, and debuted an analytics software called Deep Insight. It also uses a new programming language, called P4, to redefine the network data plane.
Barefoot was founded by Nick McKeown, now chief scientist, Pat Bosshart, now CTO, and Dan Lenoski, now chief development officer. What these three founders saw was a missing element in networking — programmability at the silicon level.
“The field of networking has evolved probably the slowest of all the fields in the technology industry,” said Prem Jonnalagadda, Barefoot’s director of product. “Networking is held hostage by the need for interoperability … so evolution and trying out new things has become hard.” He said that fixed function chips that have been around “for ages” don’t allow organizations to adapt to new standards and protocols.
Thus, Barefoot built its programmable chip Tofino as a networking processor. And to help define what the network data plane can do it helped create the P4 programming language.
According to Jonnalagadda, what Barefoot has created is “the freedom to design what the chip can do using a P4 program.”
One of Barefoot’s most-touted capabilities is that it enables programmability of the forwarding plane. “With the programmable chip what you can actually do is assign the resources to only the pieces you want, you can delete the features you don’t want and basically make your switch do the things that your network needs, and do it better,” said Jonnalagadda.
Recently, FOX Networks worked with Barefoot to demonstrate programmable forwarding plane technology within a broadcast network. Barefoot’s Tofino switch chip ran a P4 program written by FOX, implementing forwarding plane functions. The demonstration showed how Tofino could help broadcast networks eliminate some expensive middleware boxes.
Tofino could also replace traditional load balancing. Layer 4 load balancing is typically done by appliances that are very expensive. But with Tofino that functionality can be embedded into the switch itself instead of having an expensive middle box.
Both Arista and Cisco have released data center offerings based on Barefoot Tofino. In June Arista launched a family of leaf and spine systems, the 7170 Series, based on silicon from Barefoot Networks. The 7170 Series opens up a whole set of use cases and a new level of programmability for customers who want that choice. And Cisco also launched a Tofino-powered programmable data center switch.
5G and IoT
Barefoot says that its programmable chips could play a vital role in 5G networks by reducing latency and enhancing the network performance monitoring capabilities.
“What’s happening in 5G is the bandwidth is increasing per subscriber, and then because of this high bandwidth that is available new applications are running on top of 5G,” said Jonnalagadda. Tofino enables operators to offload packet functions onto the chip to get high performance, low latency, and low jitter “so you’re able to service more subscribers at higher bandwidth.”
He also noted that Barefoot sees virtual network functions (VNF) offload as an application for Tofino in 5G networks. He said that some functions that usually run on a pool of data center servers can run on the chip.
Although Tofino is not yet being used for IoT, Jonnalagadda said that “it’s a no brainer” to use Tofino for IoT. The chip enables operators to look at every packet to figure out what’s going on with the particular flow and packet in real-time. This is a function that operators need for IoT use cases where there are many connections and lots of data flowing through the network, he said.
Recently the need for programmable chips came under fire when Marvell discontinued its Xpliant programmable chip line. Marvell said that programmable switches are being relegated to niche applications such as network monitoring, packet brokering, load balancing, and prototyping of new technologies.
Barefoot VP of Product and Marketing Ed Doe told SDxCentral that Barefoot’s chips are being used for functions such as enhanced tunnel scale, application telemetry, and large-scale access control lists (ACLs). “Enhanced tunnel scale is not a niche application,” said Doe. “As virtual machines and containers grow, I don’t think that’s a niche application. I don’t think telemetry is a niche.”
In addition, Doe said that having the widely-accepted P4 language with which to program a chip is key. “This allows us to scale and adapt to everyone’s individual needs. P4 is a mature organization with over 1,500 developers and thousands of commits.”
Just this week, Barefoot announced its Barefoot P4 Studio, a software development environment to accelerate the adoption of programmable forwarding planes.