Aruba Launches Network Switch Armed with Pensando Programmable Chip

Aruba Networks is teaming with silicon startup Pensando on a data center switch that is designed to incorporate tasks that currently are performed by optimized appliances and deliver them as distributed services.

Aruba’s CX 10000 Series top-of-rack switch will enable enterprises to deploy the same flexible, open and service-driven network infrastructures run by hyperscalers and cloud providers in their own data centers or colocation facilities. Rather than run security and other jobs like firewalls, encryption, network address translation and load balancing in separate appliances, those tasks are provided as stateful services through Pensando’s integrated Elba data processing unit (DPU).

The new L2/L3 switch will enable organizations to move forward in a world of hybrid clouds and the edge, where more of the network traffic runs east-west, among devices in a data center, rather than north-south between systems residing in separate facilities. It creates a distributed services environment that is run through this new distributed services switch, according to John Gray, data center marketing lead for Aruba, which is owned by Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

Focusing on East-West Traffic

Driving the development of the switch is the amount and speed of traffic moving from the public cloud, with as much as 70 percent of that traffic moving east-west — from one virtual machine to another, between servers or from container to container, Gray told Enterprise Networking Planet.

“For the last decade, data center customers have built software-defined infrastructures, whether it be 10 gig [Gigabit Ethernet, or GbE}, 25, 100, 400 gig leaf-and-spine infrastructures,” he said. “That has helped from a performance perspective, but what hasn’t helped is the introduction of that service chaining. The way customers address that today is literally with multimillion-dollar firewalls, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of L4-7 appliances that are hung off a separate services leaf within the data center that isn’t designed to deal with that [east-west] traffic … down where the application is.”

Where the application is in modern infrastructures could also be the enterprise edge or a colocation site out towards the edge of a customer’s IT environment. The result is a lot of “hairpinning of traffic” through the services layer, which inhibits performance, increases complexity and costs, and makes it difficult to scale.

“These firewalls are hundreds of thousands of dollars each and they’re designed for north-south [traffic], not so much east-west,” Gray said. “What we’re doing with the distributed services switch is taking those technologies in software, accelerating it with silicon and moving that place in the network actually into the fabric of the network at the top of rack in a way where it’s as close as possible to where those applications are being processed.”

Also read: Managing Security Across MultiCloud Environments

Leaps Forward in Performance, Costs

The result is a 10-fold improvement in performance and 1,000 times the ability to scale than traditional network infrastructures at a third of the cost, he said. The CX 10000 is based on Aruba’s existing AOS-CX networking operating system and its CX switch portfolio of top-of-rack switches for campuses and data centers. The new switch also runs Aruba Fabric Composer software for provisioning the CX switches and unifying infrastructure that also includes HPE data center systems.

The new switch, which will be available in January 2022 starting at $45,000, offers 3.2Tb/s of switching capacity and 48 10 and 25 GbE ports and six 40 and 100 GbE ports.

Managing security is a key part of the switch. Running traffic through a series of security appliances can be costly and hurt performance. The CX 10000 encrypts traffic, delivers firewall capabilities and enables microsegmentation of the network, enabling traffic to only access areas of the network that are necessary. It also helps enterprises stretch zero-trust architectures out to the edge.

Also read: Micro Data Centers are Evolving the Edge

Pensando’s DPU

A key to the CX 10000 is Pensando’s DPU, or smartNIC. The company was launched in 2017 by several Cisco Systems veterans, including former CEO John Chambers, who is the startup’s chairman. DPUs are becoming increasingly popular in modern data centers as another avenue for offloading certain tasks from a system’s CPU to improve performance. The Elba DPU is central to helping bring services into the switch and eliminate appliances in the infrastructure.

Pensando has already raised $313 million, with HPE being among the investors. Along with Chambers, other ex-Cisco veterans including Prem Jain, now the company’s CEO, Luca Cafiero, Mario Mazzola and Soni Jiandani (chief business officer), who during their years with Cisco had spun out many companies that later were folded back into the networking giant. Another former Cisco executive who helped found Pensando was Vipin Jain, who is now the new company’s chief technology officer.

With Pensando, Chambers and the others are now producing silicon that the likes of Aruba can use in their competition with Cisco and other networking vendors, as well as other DPU makers like Nvidia and Broadcom. Cloud providers and hyperscalers like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud and Facebook have been using DPUs for several years. 

‘Taking on the Giants’

During an online event with HPE and Pensando, Chambers said that he wants to make the cloud more accessible and “giving the capability for any major hyperscaler to compete with AWS and now bringing it down to any enterprise or government agency. … We have a chance to change a whole market and take on the giants. It‘s fun to take on the big competitors and bring them down.”

For its part, HPE for about a year has offered Pensando’s technology in servers in its Apollo, ProLiant and Edgeline portfolios as well as through its GreenLake hybrid cloud platform.

“Now we’re bringing that technology and embedding it into a network switch form factor,” Gray said.

Alan Weckel, founder and technology analyst at 650 Group, said during a presentation where the CX 10000 was announced that the push by Aruba, HPE, and Pensando towards a distributed services network architecture makes sense at a time when the IT environment is changing rapidly, with multiclouds and hybrid clouds as well as private clouds, colocation centers and the edge, and in an era where the data — creating it, moving and storing it, and managing and security it — is what matters most.

Addressing Pain Points

The use of such offload technologies as DPUs is important, Weckel said.

“If we look at the way the servers evolved, we have FPGAs [field-programmable gate arrays], ASICs, smartNICs, now we call them DPUs, and it’s been to address these pain points via hardware and software out there,” he said. “To a certain extent, the server has been a little bit ahead with that smartNIC and now DPU category. This creates a great opportunity for the network to embrace the same sort of technology and accelerate how we’re deploying workloads and really solve these customer pain points. The human just can’t scale relative to what we’ve been doing in the past.”

Enterprises will likely embrace new offerings like the CX 10000 if it means simplifying operations, removing complexity and costs and enhancing security and scalability.

“They can’t scale, they have application creep, they have security creep, they have data out there and this class of product allows them to look at the network a little bit differently and maybe build the network on a build-forward 10-year basis,” Weckel said. “That’s why they’re going to look at it in terms of deployments.”

He doesn’t see much in the way of hurdles, adding that “the hybrid cloud and enterprise is moving so fast these days, whether it’s because we’re working from home or just the agility factor, that they’ll be quick to embrace this because it will enable them to move faster and be more agile or just more cloud-like.”

Read next: NetOps vs DevOps: Bringing Automation to the Network

Jeff Burt
Jeffrey Burt has been a journalist for more than three decades, the last 20-plus years covering technology. During more than 16 years with eWEEK, he covered everything from data center infrastructure and collaboration technology to AI, cloud, quantum computing and cybersecurity. A freelance journalist since 2017, his articles have appeared on such sites as eWEEK, The Next Platform, ITPro Today, Channel Futures, Channelnomics, SecurityNow, Data Breach Today, InternetNews and eSecurity Planet.

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