Barefoot says its programmable chip will revolutionize networking

chip close up

Barefoot Networks Inc. launched today from stealth with a networking chip technology that it boldly claims will revolutionize the computer industry.

The company’s proprietary Tofino switch chip processes packets at 6.5 terabits per second, which is twice as fast as any other product on the market. More importantly, the chips are fully user-programmable using a language that Barefoot has open sourced. Bandwidth-constrained customers can use these chips to build networks that match their unique needs without sacrificing performance, the company said.

Network owners can program the Tofino chips to specify the behavior of the packet processing devices in their network—down to the packets flowing on the wire, according to Barefoot. That enables software developers to program their network in much the same way they program a computer.

The P4 programming language, which Barefoot developed and has open-sourced, was developed in cooperation with Google, Microsoft and Intel, and now has 40 companies as members of P4.org. The chip design, which Barefoot said it also plans to open-source at some point, achieves its performance by minimizing hard-coded logic. “Only about 15 percent of chip is logic,” said Ed Doe, Barefoot’s vice president of product management and marketing. “We built a processor that’s tailor-made for packet processing. If you choose the architecture right and don’t make it too general, you can operate much faster.”

Barefoot was founded by Nick McKeown, a professor in the electrical engineering and computer science departments at Stanford University and a serial networking entrepreneur, whom some have called the “father of software-defined networking.” Barefoot has a seasoned executive team and has raised more than $75 million with funding from Sequoia Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Andreessen Horowitz.  “That’ll be enough to get the device out there in production,” Doe said.

First samples of the chip itself won’t be available until late this year, but many companies are already actively experimenting with programming in P4. “One of the good side-effects of having a good switch fabric is that we can put the software into customers’ hands well ahead of hardware,” Doe said. “It puts networking into the hands of programmers for the first time.”

The new chip should play well with Web-scale companies, which have struggled to keep up with unprecedented demand for bandwidth. Unlike data centers, which are increasingly automated, hardware from the major networking equipment makers comes pre-programmed with little configurability. Companies that want to customize network chips generally take at least a 90 percent hit on performance. Barefoot compares its architecture to the reduced instruction set computing chips that run most high-end servers.

“The basic fixed-function switch architecture was set in 1996 and has remained unchanged for twenty years,” McKeown said in a statement. “How could a 1996 switching architecture be the right foundation for 2016’s applications?”

Barefoot’s technology stands to break the vendor lock-in that has characterized the networking industry and led to the dominance of companies like Cisco Systems Inc. Barefoot’s architecture, “will alter the inner workings of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and LinkedIn,” wrote Cade Metz in Wired today. “It will force a response from hardware giants like Cisco and big chip makers like Intel and Broadcom. It will feed the evolution of telecommunication empires like AT&T.”

While Cisco is a competitor, “it’s a potential customer,” Doe said. “Even though we see the large-scale data center operators as customers who can package this up as they need, Cisco can also package this technology for its customers.”

Barefoot said its technology gives customers the ability to take insights gleaned from years of traffic analysis and code them into silicon. “These features can be delivered in a few hours, and can then be applied to different switches from different vendors,” the company said in a press release. “By contrast, legacy network providers typically aggregate features in staged, often annual, upgrades, forcing customers to pay steep upgrade fees for features they may not require.”

Customers have already programmed load balancers, firewalls and packet analyzers in the new language, the company said. The chip can be used both for software-defined networks and network function virtualization.