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.