From Punched Cards to SmartNICs – a Personal Journey Part 6

From Punched Cards to SmartNICs – a Personal Journey Part 6


Did you read part 5? If not check it out here.

Part 6: The 2000s

Fast forward to 2005/6.  I was a founder at Nuova Systems, which developed the UCS server series for Cisco. The world of I/O had evolved from SBus to PCI to PCI Express, 1Gb Ethernet was everywhere, and 10Gb Ethernet was just starting.  But servers still had a mess of storage controllers, SCSI and Fibre Channel, which were mostly “intelligent”.

When Intel came out with the Nehalem generation of processors (spurred on by AMD & Opteron), servers got a lot faster at compute, memory, and I/O all at once.  A lot of the intelligent I/O devices all of a sudden became the bottlenecks for storage, and the vendors had to scramble to get new chips with much more hardware acceleration into them.

At Nuova we also understood that controlling I/O could go a long way to “virtualizing” a server – making it think it had more, less, or different connectivity than it really did. So we created what has become the Cisco UCS VIC – virtual interface card –
which can appear to be any number of PCI Express devices, each with network-controlled configuration.  This is also a kind of a SmartNIC – quite smart in the control plane, but with a mostly hardware data path to avoid performance issues.

In 2009, Mike O’Dell, another gent of great experience, published a paper called “Network Front-end Processors, Yet Again”.  At that time TCP Offload Engines were all the rage. Mike pointed out that the protocols required between a host and a front-end are often just as complex as the protocols that you’re trying to offload!

Head over to the last installment of this journey here.

About the Author:

Tom Lyon is a computing systems architect, a serial entrepreneur and a kernel hacker. Prior to founding DriveScale, Tom was founder and Chief Scientist of Nuova Systems, a start-up that led a new architectural approach to systems and networking. Nuova was acquired in 2008 by Cisco, whose highly successful UCS servers and Nexus switches are based on Nuova’s technology. He was also founder and CTO of two other technology companies. Netillion, Inc. was an early promoter of memory-over-network technology. At Ipsilon Networks, Tom invented IP Switching. Ipsilon was acquired by Nokia and provided the IP routing technology for many mobile network backbones. As employee #8 at Sun Microsystems, Tom was there from the beginning, where he contributed to the UNIX kernel, created the SunLink product family, and was one of the NFS and SPARC architects. He started his Silicon Valley career at Amdahl Corp., where he was a software architect responsible for creating Amdahl’s UNIX for mainframes technology. Tom holds numerous U.S. patents in system interconnects, memory systems, and storage. He received a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Princeton University.

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