Barefoot Networks gears up for AI, 5G with P4 and its Tofino chip

Barefoot Networks' programmable Ethernet switch is being used by AT&T, among other service providers and vendors. (Pixabay)

Ever since it came out of stealth mode two years ago, Santa Clara, California-based Barefoot Networks has taken aim at shaking up the networking sector. 

Barefoot is taking on the likes of Broadcom and other traditional custom silicon application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) vendors with its programmable Ethernet Tofino switch.

Barefoot was founded in 2013 by chief scientist and Stanford University professor Nick McKeown, Chief Technology Officer Pat Bosshart and Chief Development Officer Dan Lenoski.

McKeown also was a founder of Nicira before it was sold to VMware,

"Nick came up with this idea of having a fully programmable Ethernet switch ASIC that's not just fully programmable, but allows end users to program the data plane," said Barefoot Networks' Prem Jonnalagadda, director of product management, in an interview with FierceTelecom. "So it calls for a high level programming language that's easy to learn and easy to code in, which can be used to describe the data plane behavior of the chip."

Barefoot taps into P4

The Tofino Ethernet switch uses a programmable language called P4 to enable the programming of the packet forwarding planes. In September, Barefoot Networks announced the availability of its P4 Studio, which was designed to accelerate the adoption of programmable forwarding planes.

"P4 is a domain-specific programming language for networking, and it's high level and domain-specific, so people who are actually in the networking field can actually develop programs in P4 and run them on a P4 programmable target," Jonnalagadda said. "This put the builders of the network equipment in the driver's seat because they can dictate the behavior of the forwarding plane, which has never been possible before."

Jonnalagadda said for the past 20 years the traditional ASIC has been limited to a fixed function, meaning whatever protocol logic gets hard coded into the chip is what the chip can do.

Going forward, Jonnalagadda said fixed function switching is not going to be viable anymore, mainly because the bandwidth demand and functionality needs are increasing on networks.

"The types of services the networks are delivering, the types of applications they're supporting, have basically exploded," he said. "Networks need to be intelligent. They need to be able to provide the visibility that the people who are running the networks need. They need to be malleable and programmable and so on and so forth. The fixed-function ASIC paradigm is not going to work anymore.

"So what we are doing at Barefoot Networks is basically bringing the forwarding plane into the control of the people who are building networks, and also the people who are building network equipment, so that people can deliver services and deliver features, networking features, at the speed of software instead of at the speed of hardware."

AT&T, Fox dip toes into Barefoot Networks

P4 and Tofino have a broad set of use cases across the telecommunications industry. In March of last year, AT&T announced it had installed Tofino-based white boxes running SnapRoute's FlexSwitch Network Operating System (NOS) in parts of its existing MPLS-based networks. AT&T also used the programmability of the chip to improve network telemetry.

"They (AT&T) actually put a Tofino-based switch in San Francisco and another one in Washington, D.C., and they were able to get full visibility into their traffic across the country using Tofino and also a feature called In-band Network Telemetry," Jonnalagadda said.

This year Barefoot Networks worked with Fox Networks to show that programmable forwarding plane technology can work within a broadcast network. The demonstration used Barefoot's Tofino chip that ran a Fox Network P4 program to show that networks could use forwarding plane technology to cut down on the use of middleware boxes.

"We have actually worked with Google on the Stratum project and P4 Runtime, which is a framework for controlling P4 programmable data planes, either locally or remotely," Jonnalagadda said. "We've also seen announcements from Alibaba, who has shown how they have taken a programmable silicon and put their own operating system on top and deployed it into their networks.

"We also have announcements by OEMs, like Arista and Cisco, that have announced platforms based on Tofino. Arista's 7170 series of switches are based on Barefoot Tofino, and Cisco's Nexus 3400 series of switches are based on Barefoot Tofino."

RELATED: Kaloom bows programmable data center fabric to increase automation

Startup vendor Kaloom is also using Barefoot's Tofino chip for its Software Defined Fabric (SDF) network overlay.

Emerging technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence and machine learning will also get a boost from programmable networking due to their stringent network demands.  With 5G, Tofino and P4 would enable operators to offload packet functions onto the chip to reduce latency and jitter while increasing performance with more available bandwidth.  

On the competitive front, Jonnalagadda said none of the other vendors currently can match the performance level of the Tofino chip. While Broadcom doesn't have a programmable P4-based chip, it could develop one. 

Heavy hitter investors and open source groups

Barefoot Networks' list of investors includes heavy hitters Sequoia Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Andreessen Horowitz as well as a few smaller investment firms. Jonnalagadda said Barefoot Networks also has strategic investments from Google Cloud, Tencent, Alibaba, Dell Technologies and HPE. To date, Barefoot has raised $150 million.

Barefoot Networks, which has 200 employees, is a member of the P4 Language Consortium, Open Networking Foundation, the Linux Foundation, Open Compute Project and Open19. Jonnalagadda said Barefoot was also interested in the Telecom Infra Project (TIP.)

"We've looked at TIP," he said. "There are lots of opportunities in that space. Our silicon can go into those devices so TIP is something we'll probably join very soon."