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Summary:

Solarflare, the former maker of 10 gigabit Ethernet silicon, has transitioned from making chips to making network adapter cards to speed up the networking capabilities of servers. Now it wants to take that further by doing real-time processing as data comes in from the network.

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Solarflare, the former maker of 10 gigabit Ethernet silicon, has transitioned from making chips to making network adapter cards that are added to servers to speed up the networking capabilities of the machines. So for those use cases where speed (and latency) matters, Solarflare is there to help.

Surprisingly, the audience willing to spend big bucks to reduce latency by seconds –or milliseconds–might be larger than you could imagine. Solarflare’s background is in the world of high-frequency trading where milliseconds can cost millions, and large financial players were willing to shell out for Solarflare’s network cards. HPC networks and superfast academic networks are also customers.

On Tuesday the company added a new twist to its offering by adding a specially designed networking chip and middleware to its adapter cards that allows a customer to connect an application directly to the network. So for applications that need it, Solarflare’s new cards can allow a customer to process data coming in from the network in real-time. This is a big deal for its existing markets as well as for any company looking to process large amounts of data in real time.

The product called the ApplicationOnload Engine has a silly name, but its a powerful concept. It combines a specialty chip called an FPGA, with Solarflare’s adapter and with its middleware (see diagram) on a single card that can be slotted into servers. The whole package is designed to make programming the chip easier without sacrificing speed.

FPGAs were once common in the networking space, and vendors spent millions designing them to eke out performance gains for their gear. But while hardware offers faster performance, it’s a pain to program, which meant that FPGAs weren’t user-friendly or flexible. As general network services became more attractive than speed, network vendors tended to neglect the smaller market whose need for speed trumped general purpose networking.

Much like Arista, which serves that high-end market with its own switches and software, Solarflare is hoping to pick up business where the major players have left a hole. Russell Stern, the CEO of Solarflare, says Solarflare’s financial customers are ready to trust their networking applications to Solarflare after relying on the company’s cards for the last few years, which prompted the move into this next level of service.

Stern also sees a potential market in big data processing and even new use cases such as enabling social networks to conduct auctions to deliver real-time advertising at the moment when a user refreshes a page. Much like Fusion-io — which had conducted a successful initial public offering based on its premise that a large class of companies would pay for a separate adapter card that helped boost the speed of solid state drives and added intelligence — Solarflare is catering to a once-niche market that is growing and underserved by the larger vendors.

As we demand faster page load times, faster networks and faster transactions Solarflare is a natural beneficiary. Solarflare’s networking cards aren’t for everyone, but given our need for speed, the market is big enough and will only get bigger.

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  1. Nicira, with their software switch implementation, is one end of the networking spectrum where the networking is done inside the Intel server on commodity hardware. The existing network vendors do everything in hardware/firmware in custom silicon.

    Between those two extremes of possibility is a range of solutions not yet ‘discovered’. It’s only natural that there are good niches in the ecosystem for hardware acceleration in the server (Solarflare is one of these), or software solution in the network ( upcoming IEEE 802.1BR is one of these).

    You can also see this playing out the in the storage industry, where smaller vendors such Fusion-IO have deployed hardware to accelerate Storage Area Networks and EMC has responded with a mostly software based product in VFcache.

    This games isn’t over, and it’s beginning to look like 1998 again. That was the last golden age in networking.

  2. AdvancedIO (www.advancedio.com) has been in this business for the last couple of years with deployments in North America, Europe and Asia. Transactions are performed in the order of few microseconds rather than millisecond with the race heading toward breaking down the microsecond barrier.

  3. Unfortunately I have to criticize this article a bit. This is just a rewording of the other sites/Solarflare press announcement. Unfortunately if remove all the water the only information you get is “Solarflare released FPGA/NIC card that can be programmed with Application Onload Engine”. I was wondering if the author has more information on the software API, which function could be programmed/offloaded, etc.

  4. A lot of hot air about Solarflare. Their NIC does nothing. The send the packets as fast as they can into the server and use one of the cores to handle the network stack. It’s essentially a piece of wire — for 700 bucks. What a racket.

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