This startup may have built the world's fastest networking switch chip

Barefoot Networks is also making its switch platform completely programmable

Networking has undergone radical changes in the past few years, and two startup launches this week show the revolution isn’t over yet.

Barefoot Networks is making what it calls a fully programmable switch platform. It came out of stealth mode on Tuesday, the same day 128 Technology emerged claiming a new approach to routing. Both say they’re rethinking principles that haven’t changed since the 1990s.

Now is a good time to shake up networking, because IT itself is changing shape, says Nemertes Research analyst John Burke.

“Everybody pretty much wants and needs their IT services to work continuously and scalably,” Burke said. Enterprises need shorter communication delays, a way to scale networks up or down without months of preparation, and a distributed architecture to prevent breakdowns from one hardware failure. It’s happening because many enterprise applications just can’t stop working without dire consequences.

“We’ve so dramatically ramped up our level of dependency on these services to do business that these things follow in the wake of that dependency,” he said.

SDN (software-defined networking) is intended in part to meet those needs. Now some new players are going further.

Barefoot spent two years developing the Tofino series of switch chips that it calls the world’s fastest, at 6.5Tbps (bits per second). Even more important is Barefoot’s PISA (Protocol Independent Switch Architecture), which gives networking vendors near-total freedom to develop new switching software.

As a result, they’ll be able to develop and update their products on a software schedule, which is much faster than crafting new hardware every time a big change is needed, Burke said. Enterprises won’t have to wait as long for new, more capable switches.

As its name implies, PISA doesn’t force switches to use any existing protocol, including TCP/IP (Transfer Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), the basic mechanism of most current data networks. About all that’s required for it to work is to make what comes out of the ports look like Ethernet packets.

That makes Barefoot’s switch architecture more software-defined than anything that’s come out of SDN (software-defined networking) to date, Burke said. In a way, it’s a next step for SDN. Barefoot’s founder and chief scientist, Nick McKeown, was one of the founders of Nicira Networks, the pioneering SDN startup that was acquired by VMware in 2012.

While TCP/IP isn’t going away anytime soon, it’s decades old and falls short in some areas, analyst Burke said. Alternatives have sprung up for specific use cases, including Fibre Channel for storage and InfiniBand for high-performance computing.

If there is a full-scale replacement for TCP/IP in the future, Barefoot’s architecture is designed to help make the transition. Plus, it will let developers make other changes to meet new IT demands. Developers will code Tofino switches using P4, an open-source language specifically designed for packet-forwarding data planes.

Barefoot is based in Palo Alto, California, and expects to ship samples of its hardware in the fourth quarter. Its P4 development environment is available now at the company’s site.

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