The Programmable Switch Chip Consigns Legacy Fixed-Function Chips to the History Books

Martin Martin Izzard l Sep 29, 2016

It seems Barefoot has really started something big – and even blindsided a few top networking players – with the introduction of our 6.5Tb/s Tofino chip, the fastest networking chip in the world. Now, just three months after its introduction, we’re expecting several traditional legacy chip players to stage their own announcements of new chips that run as fast as Tofino. Great: like us, they’re satisfying “the need for speed.”

But guess what? Apparently nobody told those guys that programmability is the name of the game. In June, we didn’t just announce blazing speed. We also announced that Tofino was the first and only chip with a fully programmable forwarding plane. Almost overnight, the fixed-function chips of competitors became outmoded. We expect the legacy players, with their new chips, to claim some limited configurability – not true forwarding plane programmability. Fundamentally, the architectures of these fixed-function chips have not changed in 20 years. Legacy vendors of these devices just keep piling on more features with each new release. Yet all these new features are being picked by chip designers, not the people who design, build and operate networks. Not surprisingly, chip designers don’t usually pick the right ones, leaving network operators to work around the limitations, forcing them to wait 2-3 years for the next spin of the chip with another attempt to get the right features, and so it goes on. In a programmable world, things are much simpler: The network owners and operators decide for themselves; they know what features they need.

How far ahead is Barefoot? Well, we didn’t introduce just full programmability, but full user programmability. Yes, that’s right: when we say “programmable,” we mean “user programmable.” Since we use P4 , our customers can express what they want to do in their networks, and they can program Tofino with those specialized functions ahead of placing the chip in the network. This capability speaks to the maturity of our programmable forwarding plane architecture.

And there’s more. We’ve demonstrated that programmability does not have to come with a tax on forwarding performance, as naysayers had predicted it would. Tofino is not only user-programmable, but it will consume no more power, and cost no more, than a fixed-function switch chip.

Numerous early adopters of Barefoot’s Tofino chip and Capilano P4 development environment are engaged in trials, and still others are preparing to move into production with the technology.

If you’re a developer, you can use our Capilano environment today to create your own data and control planes. You can also create unambiguous specifications of the features and behavior you want in your network. That’s what our customers are doing: writing programs in P4, compiling them with Capilano, and running those programs on the Tofino chip. As easy as 1, 2, 3, solving business problems without any vendor constraints.

Last, but not least, as we said in June, our Tofino chips will be available shortly, in Q4 this year, having already succeeded in scores of successful trials. Further, not only will Tofino be available soon, but so will several production-ready systems from multiple suppliers enabled by Tofino.

There’s much much more to come with the advent of the fully programmable network. Stay tuned.