SmartNICs march into the data centre. Hence the AMD-Xilinx deal

The looming presence of SmartNICs in the data centre is highlighted by AMD’s $35bn-all-stock acquisition of Xilinx, announced this week.

AMD is a resurgent player in the data centre, but it lacks SmartNIC capability, unlike Intel and Nvidia.

Xilinx makes Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) and has an Alveo data centre accelerator card and Smart NIC product line. Customers include Cisco, Samsung and SK Telecom, and two startups, Eideticom and ScaleFlux, use Xilinx FPGAs in their computational storage products.

Alveo U25 Smart NIC.

Gartner VP Alan Priestley said: “While the two companies have little/no overlap in terms of products, they do have markets in common (data centre) where the use of FPGAs as AI accelerators and network accelerators is interesting. Xilinx could help AMD into the comms market.”

So why is this important?

Smart NICS are network interface cards that sport an additional Arm processor or FPGA to run network an/ or low-level storage processing in order to offload the host server processors. The aim is for the server CPU to run more application code while the Smart NIC speeds up low-level network and storage tasks with dedicated hardware. This is a big money saver.

“I would argue that the advance the SmartNIC is making is going to change both the economics of the data center and also what’s possible there,” Tom Gillis, who runs VMware’s Networking and Security business unit, says “If you combine this with high-density CPU cores from the likes of AMD and Intel…you could run ten thousand VMs in a single 4U chassis with one of these SmartNICs for I/O. It’s a data center in a box,” he told DCK in an interview last month.

“It is amazing the densities we’ll be able to achieve and the economic efficiencies we will achieve. I think if we’re proactive, we can deliver all of that efficiency, and we can do better security than we did in the physical world.”

VMware has brought the Smart NIC market alive with its Project Monterey partnership with Nvidia. Monterey Smart NICs will have Arm processors running the ESXi hypervisor. B&F thinks AMD-Xilinx will likely try to enter the Monterey Smart NIC development.