Any Alternatives to FPGAs for SmartNICs?
In our last blog post, we discussed how FPGAs are used in all Accolade products. Customer’s sometimes ask if there are alternatives to using an FPGA. The answer is yes, however FPGAs are the most cost effective and flexible option.
If you don’t want to use an FPGA there are essentially two other viable options: 1) ASIC and 2) Network Processor (NPU). An ASIC has many attractive qualities but lack of programmability, high cost at low volume and long development cycle make it very unattractive for packet processing and application offload functionality. Both FPGAs and NPU are programmable so they work well in an environment where requirements can change and there is some need for customization, as is the case with security and network monitoring. FPGAs however have some very distinct advantages over NPUs, chief among them that new silicon technologies (e.g. 25G SerDes, DDR4 DRAM support) are available on FPGAs first. This is mostly because the FPGA market is larger (FPGAs are used across industries as diverse as defense, broadcasting and medical) and therefore more stable and profitable. This leads to greater investment, innovation, and better pricing. On the technical side, FPGAs use less power and have more deterministic latency and performance which are distinct advantages for packet processing and application offload.
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