Director, Marketing Communications
Director, Marketing Communications

With Packet Brokers, Apparently Hardware Does Matter

September 6, 2017 by Jason Lackey
A Supercharger - like using an FPGA in a Network Packet Broker
A Supercharger - like a GPU for your gaming rig or an FPGA for your Network Packet Broker

Per the title, with network packet brokers, as well as a lot of other things, the hardware actually does matter. In this world of software defined everything it is easy to dismiss the vital role of hardware in overall system design. Indeed, it is the very power of modern hardware that has allowed many applications to perform well enough on generic hardware that has enabled the software defined revolution.

However, there are a number of applications where you really need trick hardware above and beyond the generic baseline. In the image, right, a chrome supercharger sits on top of a high performance V-8. The supercharger significantly increases the power of the engine (and both sounds and looks cool as well).

Just as the familiar Prius is not going to shine on the race track, generic compute hardware struggles in video gaming – both console and PC. In both cases the extreme demands of HD (and now 4K) gaming require help in the form of special high performance graphics hardware. Yes, it is possible to play games on software-based systems, but you are going to be closer to Pong than hyper-realistic, 3D games like Forza Motorsport in 4K at 60 FPS. In order to meet the extreme demands of the latest games at 4K, with full textures, shading and effects all turned on you need special hardware or you are going to get jittery performance with dropped frames.

Similarly, the demands on a network packet broker are considerable as well. SSL/TLS encryption/decryption is demanding, as are many packet broker features such as packet deduplication, filtering, packet slicing, header stripping – particularly when performed at line rate. While a gaming rig under excessing load will start to run at a low frame rate or start to get jittery with dropped frames, lab tests including a Tolly test of Network Packet Brokers show that software-based NPBs such as Gigamon start to drop significant numbers of packets where Ixia continues seamless processing at line rate.

What’s the secret? In the case it isn’t a supercharger nor is it a GPU, although there are fascinating uses of GPUs in areas including decryption/cracking (here’s a guide to building an 8 GPU cracking rig) and crypto currency mining (Forbes piece on best Etherium mining GPUs). In this case we are use an FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) as a hardware accelerator. Traditional hardware acceleration has been done with ASICs. However, in networking we have found that certain tasks, such as those done by a network packet broker, can be significantly enhanced by using FPGAs. No, they are not cheap and they require high level expert programming – the type of talent that doesn’t come cheap. However, when your customers trust you to provide a true view of the network, and not the half blind, missing traffic view that you get if your packet broker is dropping packets, it is worth the effort and expense. After all, anything worth doing is worth doing right and apparently when doing things right hardware does matter.