Barefoot Networks, a startup developing programmable networking chips, announced a $23 million investment from Chinese Internet giants Alibaba and Tencent. The investment will be added to a $57 million Series C investment announced in June of this year.
This brings the C round, which also includes Google and Goldman Sachs, to $80 million. The company has raised a total of just over $155 million since 2013.
Barefoot Networks is making an ambitious bet by producing highly programmable silicon chips that will be built into network switches. These chips will let hyperscale Web companies, service providers, and large enterprises configure how the silicon processes packets, rather than rely on fixed processing from incumbents such as Broadcom.
Barefoot leverages P4, an open-source programming language for configuring packet processing devices such as switches.
(For more details on P4, listen to the Packet Pushers’ conversation with SDN pioneer, Stanford professor, and Barefoot co-founder Nick McKeown).
Control Your Destiny
The P4 language, and Barefoot’s development of silicon to take full advantage of it, are part of a larger trend in which massive Internet companies are driving innovation in networking, automation, and orchestration.
In some cases they’re taking the DIY route. Examples include Facebook, which is designing its own switches and promoting open hardware and software via the Open Compute Project; and Google, which developed the Kubernetes orchestration platform and released it as open source software.
In other cases, they’re investing in startups such as Barefoot, and in open source projects. Case in point is Microsoft, which just became a platinum member of the Linux Foundation. The foundation oversees a host of projects that undergird large-scale cloud architectures.
These tech giants aren’t just innovating to be cool. They can point to greater efficiency, lower costs, and more flexible infrastructure that can be highly automated and controlled at immense scale via software.
Barefoot says that bringing investors such as Alibaba and Tencent on board is part of their strategy to draw in potential users of the technology, not just traditional VCs and financiers. These user-investors see the opportunity to get a competitive advantage from programmable hardware.
I asked if this would give investors like Google, Alibaba, or Tencent undue leverage over the direction of the technology and the startup.
“It’s a standard equity investment, but not a controlling share,” said Ed Doe, VP of product and marketing at Barefoot. “That’s how we structured this—to give interested strategics the ability to invest and help see the technology come to market.”
“We wanted to bring in multiple investors to avoid the concern of someone with an overwhelming controlling interest who could dictate the direction of the company,” he said.
Doe noted that both Google and Goldman are also investing as potential users, not just financial backers.
“With Goldman, it’s Goldman’s tech team, not the investment bank side. It’s actually being driven by Goldman’s desire to use this in their technology team,” he said.
Barefoot says it chip, called Tofino, will be sampling in December 2016.