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Mellanox SmartNIC SNAPs into NVMe SSDs

As it waits to get acquired by Nvidia, Mellanox brings out an NVMe SNAP device that lets storage vendors place code directly on BlueField SmartNIC network cards.

Mellanox Technologies is sampling an intelligent network card that virtualizes remote NVMe flash devices as fabric-attached local storage.

The Mellanox NVMe SNAP architecture is based on the vendor's BlueField SmartNIC adapters. The SNAP acronym stands for software-defined network accelerated processing. The first storage vendors to adopt NVMe SNAP are all-flash NVMe startups E8 Storage and Excelero.

Mellanox is shipping beta versions of the NVMe SNAP network interface card now, with general availability expected later this year.

Mellanox makes high-speed interconnects for InfiniBand and Ethernet. The Israel-based company also sells internal networking products that storage vendors integrate in their arrays. Supercomputer maker Nvidia last week said it would acquire Mellanox for $6.9 billion in a deal expected to close in late 2019. Industry buzz surrounding a potential Mellanox acquisition has been circulating for months, with Intel at one point reportedly preparing a rival bid.

NVMe SNAP system on a chip

The NVMe SNAP system on a chip integrates Mellanox ConnectX-5 network adapters and 16 ARM CPU cores in the same silicon layer, coupled with a PCIe Gen 4 switched NVMe fabric and acceleration engines for security, storage and application-specific use cases.

Mellanox NVMe SNAP virtualizes all physical storage using BlueField's software intelligence. Onboard CPUs handle discovery and policy engines for RAID management and other data services.

The design enables an enterprise to make NVMe flash a composable resource and overlay compression, encryption, mirroring, snapshots and RAID as services.

"We access remote NVMe storage anywhere in your data center, but it looks like direct-attached local storage," said Kevin Deierling, Mellanox vice president of marketing. "There is no impact on your hypervisor. The composability allows you to map a certain amount of storage to an application server for a set period of time, after which it is returned to the available pool for others to grab and use. It maps well to dynamic workloads."

The BlueField SmartNIC device provides "a computer in front of a computer" that adds a layer of isolation to secure data hosted in private clouds, Deierling said.

The NVMe interface provides data access with lower power consumption than the traditional SCSI protocol. Mellanox claims BlueField NICs support bandwidth up to two ports at 100 Gbps and more than 8 million IOPS.

More demand and competition

Mellanox NVMe SNAP is launching at a time of increasing demand and competition for fast storage networking to support compute-intensive tasks for analytics and AI.

Alan Weckel, a data center networking analyst at 650 Group, based in Portola Valley, Calif., said Mellanox NVMe SNAP is fast enough to satisfy cloud providers and large-scale enterprises.

"It makes sense for Mellanox to expand the SmartNIC further into storage, [competing] against what has traditionally been a Fibre Channel HBA market for block. It allows an enterprise to build its own topology, rather than being locked into a single vendor," Weckel said.

Mellanox's experience with hyperscale cloud providers should aid its reach into mainstream enterprise, Weckel said. "Mellanox is going in with an architecture discussion versus a storage vendor pitching a new type of box."

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How does your data center deal with workload demand from high-performance applications such as the ones Mellanox NVMe SNAP handles?
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