ARM Outlines Vision for Next-Generation Networking

At Mobile World Congress, ARM will discuss the Intelligent Flexible Cloud, which will address latency, power and size challenges facing networks.

Cloud networking

ARM famously dominates the mobile device space, where the bulk of smartphones and tablets run on silicon based on its architecture. In addition, a lot of time has been spent writing about and analyzing the efforts by ARM and its chip-making partners to cut into Intel's massive share of the server processor market.

However, company officials are now highlighting the expansive role ARM-based systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) have in the networking space—from routers and switches to wireless access points and set-top boxes—and the array of partnerships the company has in the space, including IBM, Advanced Micro Devices, Altera, Applied Micro and Texas Instruments.

It's a networking space undergoing rapid transition, due to such trends as mobile computing, the growth of content-rich data like video, cloud computing and the Internet of things (IoT), which are giving birth to new technologies like software-defined networking (SDN) and network-functions virtualization (NFV).

The problem is that as the demands on networks change, service providers, carriers and enterprises are being hampered by a networking architecture that is decades-old, despite some "bolt-ons and technology upgrades and tweaking" that have been done to address the needs of an increasingly mobile and bandwidth-hungry world, according to Charlene Marini, vice president of marketing for ARM's embedded business.

"There is still a reliance on single-purpose equipment and … application intelligence is still constrained to use the capabilities of an end device at one end of the network or a data center at the center of the network, and this has limited the amount of innovation that can take place on the network side of the infrastructure," Marini said.

The ARM official made her comments during a conference call with journalists and analysts, during which the company introduced its vision of the future of the network, which it is calling the Intelligent Flexible Cloud (IFC). ARM and its broad array of partners are working together to develop the technology and map out the architecture that will enable carriers and service providers to handle the growing network demands while managing the challenges of latency, power and size constraints.

ARM and some of its silicon partners will be at Mobile World Congress 2015 (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain, next week demonstrating some platforms that are based on IFC concepts.

ARM officials envision a network based on highly-integrated, highly-scalable 64-bit SoCs—beyond 64 cores—from a range of chip makers and that are heterogeneous in nature (with different memory and I/O, and optimized for particular workloads), supported by a common software layer and distributed throughout the network, not only in the data center or at the end device. Processing is put at every stage of the network, including the access, aggregation and core layers, with applications running wherever the data is.

"Networking is not a homogeneous environment, and one platform does not fit all sorts of needs," Marini said.

This type of networking architecture will become increasingly important as service providers, carriers and enterprises continue to adopt SDN and NFV, which put the control plane and networking tasks into software to make networks more flexible, agile, dynamic and programmable. Giving networks a consistent hardware platform with such a distributed nature will enable them to address the new demands while easing power, space and latency issues, according to ARM officials.

The common software layer will stress open-source efforts, from the OpenStack cloud orchestration platform to SDN standards projects like OpenDaylight and OpenFlow to the Open Platform for NFV (OPNFV). The Open Data Plane Project—which is developing an open-source set of application programming interfaces (APIs) for the networking data plane, including accelerators—also will play a key role in IFC, according to Marini, as will the Linaro Group and its networking project.

ARM also listed a broad range of partners working on the IFC initiative, such as AMD, Applied Micro, EZchip, Marvell Technologies and Xilinx.

At MWC, ARM will be demonstrating several platforms with partners. One will be done with Cavium, where the companies will leverage Cavium's ThunderX SoCs, which offer up to 48 64-bit ARMv8 cores and come with family-specific I/Os and a low-latency Ethernet fabric. It also includes accelerators for networking, and can be optimized for specific workloads.

In addition, Freescale will be demonstrating the capabilities of its QorIQ LS2 family of ARM-based SoCs, which were introduced a year ago and are aimed at SDN and NFV as well as addressing the IoT and upcoming 5G networks.