Barefoot Networks is announcing new programmable switches that will be available in the first quarter of 2017. The switches, which use Barefoot’s Tofino silicon, will be built by Edgecore Networks and WNC.
Unlike fixed-function ASICs from companies such as Broadcom, Barefoot’s Tofino chip allows full forwarding-plane programmability. In other words, network engineers and operators can control packet processing at the chip level, and develop their own features. Tofino uses the open-source P4 language to instruct the chip how to process packets.
Edgecore and WNC, which build whitebox switches, are partnering with Barefoot to bring the first Tofino-based switches to market.
Edgecore will release a 32-port 100GbE model, and a 65-port 100GbE model. Both will be available for evaluation in Q1.
WNC is launching a 1RU switch with 48 ports of 25GbE and 6 100GbE ports, available in Q1. It’s also releasing a 2U version with 65 ports of 100GbE, which is slated to come to market in the second quarter of this year.
No Official NOS Yet
While Barefoot is announcing two hardware partnerships, it hasn’t announced official support for a network OS, without which the switches can’t function.
That’s a bit of a sticking point. But the company said cloud providers, which are the initial market for these devices, tend to have their own network OSs that they can load onto the switches to get them into production.
And for those organizations that don’t have custom operating software? “None of the network OS providers are making announcements yet, but stay tuned,” said Ed Doe, VP Product and Strategy at Barefoot.
In the meantime, Doe said a softswitch is available through P4. The softswitch, which runs in a container, models a programmable switch so organizations can validate P4-based programs in advance of running them on actual hardware.
Thinking Beyond L3
Barefoot has ambitions beyond layer-3 switching functions. Because its Tofino chip is programmable, it can perform a variety of packet processing features, such as firewalling or load balancing. “We’ve had projects and demos of load balancing applications using P4 that could run on Tofino,” said Doe.
Monitoring and telemetry are also possible use cases. Rather than deploy a tap or network packet broker, “You can add telemetry with a P4 program and extract it from the switch,” said Doe.
But Barefoot still has some work ahead of it. For one, it has to demonstrate that its chips are robust and reliable. Even if it partners with third-party manufacturers, it has to address quality control and scale. You can patch buggy software, but a bad chip run is a bad chip run.
Second, it has to nurture and grow an ecosystem of features and applications around P4, particularly if it wants to expand beyond Web-scale giants that have the in-house talent and clear business need to leverage programmability right down into silicon.
Third, it’s a startup taking on multi-billion dollar incumbents. That makes for an exciting story, but it’s also a precarious venture. Getting switches to market, with NOS support, is the first step to getting on firmer ground.