Intel Makes FPGA Case for NFV Platforms

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By: Michael Vizard

Much of the talk about the future of networking infrastructure is focused on the battle between commercial silicon advanced by Intel (INTC) and Broadcom (AVGO) versus proprietary ASICs. But that analysis fails to consider the critical role that field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) already play in delivering network services.

In fact, Intel is betting that it will be a combination of commercial processors in the form of Intel Xeon processors and FPGAs that ultimately lead to the demise of proprietary ASICs. To achieve that goal, Intel has begun delivering Intel Stratix 10 TX FPGAs that it claims are the first to incorporate 58G PAM4 transceiver technology.

This new class of FPGAs will play a critical role in enabling network service providers to build and deploy network function virtualization (NFV) platforms that can scale to meet 5G requirements, says Jordon Inkeles, director of product marketing for high-end FPGAs for Intel. Those NFV platforms will run across a mix of FPGAs and x86-class processors to accelerate the performance of various algorithms being employed to create a data plane that scales.

“The thing that differentiates Intel is that we can provide the total solution,” says Inkeles.

Specifically, Intel says the Intel Stratix 10 TX FPGAs provide up to 144 transceiver lanes with serial data rates of 1 to 58 Gbps. By supporting dual-mode 58G PAM4 and 30G NRZ modulation, new infrastructure can reach 58G data rates. The result is an approach to building 100G, 200G, and 400G networks that can maintain backward compatibility, says Inkeles.

It’s clear that network service providers have arrived at a pivotal moment in terms of network architecture. Decisions being made today will have implications for both costs and performance well into the next decade. The good news is that Inkeles says the tools provided by Intel as well as third-parties that are required to build NFV platforms spanning multiple classes of processors are abstracting away much of the underlying complexity.

How quickly network services based on next-generation FPGAs will manifest themselves remains to be seen. But regardless of the path chosen, it would appear that FPGAs that have already been widely used by carriers in networks for decades are here to stay.