You might remember Netronome from their foundry agreement with Intel, or their chips, network flow processors built on said process. You are probably less familiar with Argon Design, they make software that does things that, unless you are in the industry that uses it, you probably don’t know exist. One of those things is network flow simulation software to test networking hardware.
To use this software, you need hardware to run it on, and timing-accurate network flows are a pain to reproduce. Timing-accurate network flows reproduced repeatably and consistently is even harder. Now try it at 10Gb speeds, no, two 10Gb streams at the same time, and you start to see the problem. General purpose CPUs are hopeless at this task, and commodity NIC hardware doesn’t have the flexibility needed, so even if you have the software, what do you run it on?
This little problem has relegated network testing tools to running on bespoke hardware, low volume custom chips, and usually lots of them. In case it isn’t obvious, that means they are really expensive, think more in the range of expensive houses than cars for number of digits, not remotely close to PC prices. As a result, big, expensive, and somewhat fidgety boxes rule this market. That is what Netronome and Argon are trying to change with a little product called Blaster.
The card in question
If you take a Netronome NFP3240 CPU, put it on a PCIe2 8x card along with a few Ethernet ports, and run Argon software on it, that is Blaster. What you get is a network flow simulator on a card that plugs in to a standard x86 PC. Blaster can simulate six GbE or two 10GbE flows with full timing accuracy, repeatability, and all the other things you need to test your networking equipment. In and of itself, this doesn’t change the game, what does is the price, $9999. That may not sound cheap, but if you compare it to the rest of the field where $500K is not an unusual starting price, that may change your perspective a bit. The big boxes do more, but for many, two digits less can get you everything you need.
Software is where things get interesting, the x86 side runs in a VM, KVM to be precise, so thankfully that keeps it off toy OSes. The PC side of things is very lightweight, all it does is import PCAP (Network flow capture data) files, lets you edit them, and uploads the result to the Blaster as custom “Blast” files. From there, the card does the rest in a closed loop, you can play games on the server while you test, it shouldn’t slow anything down.
Since the software is running on a chip that Netronome calls a network flow processor, all those little things that make an x86 CPU fall flat are not much of a problem. You can run tweaked Blast files, loop them, and do a bunch of tricks to tailor the flows however you want. Argon also supplies sample files if you don’t want to make your own, but if you are buying $9999 NICs on steroids, you probably have the skill set to safely do so on your own. This is the first release of the software, so expect a whole lot more in the not so distant future.
In the end, you get a network testing tool that does most of what the big boys do at a single digit percentage of the cost. It won’t replace the half-rack boxes, but there is no reason why a handful of Blasters won’t threaten those machines when chained together right. All of this runs on commodity x86 hardware, open software, and the potential is just barely tapped in the first release.S|A
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