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Arista Outpaces Cisco Again With FPGA Switch

Applications and initiatives like private cloud computing, virtualization and mobility are placing increasing pressure on network infrastructure to be faster and more capable. Initiatives like software-defined networking and protocols such as OpenFlow can make the network more flexible and manageable, but they don’t really solve the problem of application performance where high-speed, low-latency requirements are the rule. Only by removing hops and their attendant latency from the network will we continue to see performance gains. Arista’s 7124FX switch uniquely puts customer programmable FPGAs at the edge of the network for microsecond application processing.

The 7124FX is a 24-port 1/10-Gbps switch with hot-swappable redundant power supplies and fans packed into a 1RU box. The 7124FX is priced starting at $49,995, and will be available in the second quarter. What makes the 7124FX interesting is the FPGA containing 6.2 million gates that are truly field programmable. Arista is making it clear that the switch is not meant to be a super box that will replace your servers and storage. Rather, it’s targeted at applications that can make use of high-capacity, low-latency logic in FPGAs at the network level, such as high-frequency trading and media transcoding.

"This announcement is a big deal for Arista and the markets they are serving," says Andres Kindness, a senior analyst with Forrester Research. "It separates them from their competitors that are focusing on data center networking and flattening of network. It bolsters Arista’s credibility with financial services. Cisco tried to respond to Arista’s switches with the Nexus 3000, a low-latency cut-through switch, but the 7124FX leapfrogs that." However, the 7124FX opens up possibilities to other vendors, as well.

Many vendors have used, and have talked about their use of, FPGAs in networking products. However, in most cases, the FPGA was a tightly controlled component that was only updated with new software revisions. The 7124FX FPGA is designed to be programmed by the customer or an Arista partner. Ports 1 through 16 are regular 1/10-Gbps SFP/SPF+ ports, while ports 17 through 24 are directly attached to the FX ports that connect to the FPGA subsystem. The FX ports can bypass the FPGA subsystem and act like straight Ethernet ports.

Arista is initially targeting financial services and government agencies that can benefit from data processing close to the network stack. One example, NovaSparks, has an application that processes and normalizes market data as it streams using a reliable multicast from stock and future exchanges. This cuts down processing time from 10 or 100 microseconds to sub-microsecond latencies. Other examples include media transcoding and signals processing, which are both fairly niche applications.

This isn’t the first time that Arista has provided programmatic access to its switches. In 2009, the company announced a partnership with Citrix to run NetScalar VPX on the Arista 7048 switch. In 2011, Arista opened up its Extensible Operating System (EOS) to developers to run applications on the switch CPU. While you are not going to move your Apache Web servers to EOA, running code natively on the switch does open up the possibilities to automate configurations based on changing conditions.

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