Kernel-Bypass Continues to Set I/O Free as Solarflare Picks up the Torch

Kernel-Bypass Continues to Set I/O Free as Solarflare Picks up the Torch

Kernel-Bypass Continues to Set I/O Free as Solarflare Picks up the Torch

We had the opportunity to meet with the folks at Solarflare this past week and get caught up on their latest product road maps. Impressive as their growth has been (with a few years of doubling revenue under their belt) it doesn’t take much of a squint to see a far greater opportunity on the road ahead for them.

Solarflare is best known in our sector as the leading low latency 10G NIC provider. But to classify them as a hardware company overlooks where their real value lies – in the software which enables I/O offload. “Kernel-bypass” as it’s also described is a phenomena I first encountered at Wombat, where we brought the first commercially available middleware that leveraged it, the Wombat Data Fabric. Designed in partnership with the folks at Voltaire (now Mellanox), we were able to radically decrease latency and increase performance determinism vs. the prevailing middleware stacks on the market at that time by removing the OS kernel (and, more importantly, the bottleneck CPU it ran on) from the network communication path from the middleware application (in user space) to the NIC. Computing historians would better know where this moment lies on the true timeline of kernel-bypass’s birth – but certainly in the realm of electronic trading, we were blazing a new trail (in fact this became the basis of the industry’s (first? Or one of them…) STAC reports.

That was 2007, before the dawn of “big data” and the explosion of computing that has built the foundations of AWS, Facebook and the like. So it wasn’t self-evident we’d soon live in a world of consumer applications that would clamour for the sort of I/O performance that had become an obsession of the electronic trading world (where Solarflare has become the default choice for performance sensitive workloads like market data and market access). Seven years on, we’re in a different world which Solarflare looks exceptionally well positioned to capitalize on.

Take for example virtualized environments, where clusters can take advantage of the massive increases in core counts (quadrupled in those last 7 years) and bus speeds to run dozens of VMs on a single host . KVM can now support up to five thousand virtual CPUs per host. But just as it adversely impacted the jitter of I/O in electronic trading, I/O routed through the kernel can similarly become the key performance bottleneck in a cluster.

Solarflare’s new I/O drivers for virtualized environments (initially on KVM, with ESXi to follow closely after) alleviate that bottleneck by allowing application in each “guest OS” to interact directly with the Solarflare NIC. This has the potential for not only providing the performance enhancement benefits addressed above, but furthermore to allow for greater workload density on each host, reducing the cost of running a cluster. I’m unaware of any benchmarking results available yet but expect they’ll raise a lot of eyebrows given the universal appeal of efficient hypervisor operations.

The next phase of that journey could be equally rewarding for the market- application integration. Just as we made the kernel-bypass features “plug and play” to users who’d integrated their applications with the Wombat API, Solarflare will integrate their OpenOnload drivers with leading applications to seamlessly deliver the benefits of I/O offload to the NIC. Memcache appears to be the first example of this integration, and one can imagine the appeal of similar packaging with the more I/O intensive elements of blooming Hadoop stack and it’s ilk, such as Spark, Kafka, Storm, Flume and the like.

Solarflare aren’t alone in this pursuit, but they do have a strong foundation built from the unforgiving world of electronic trading, and a head of steam. Anyone who stands to benefit from cheaper computing – certainly Options and our customers – should be watching this space with interest.

– Ken Barnes

SVP Corporate Devlopment

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