SAN JOSE, Calif. — Martin Izzard and 80 colleagues want to upend the multi-billion dollar industry of network hardware. They hope the chips they will tape out soon provide a strategic wedge that does the job.
Izzard is chief executive of Barefoot Networks, a rare microprocessor startup that has attracted a whopping $130 million in funding to date including strategic backers that include Google, Goldman Sachs and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise. Its Tofino chips aim to make the job of programming complex networks as easy as writing C++ code in an emerging open-source language it helped create called P4.
Barefoot is at the bleeding edge of a trend generally called software-defined networking. SDN represents an effort to cut through what’s become a rat’s nest of competing, often proprietary APIs, protocols and ASICs.
The chips and software are embedded in systems from giants such as Cisco, Ericsson, Huawei, Juniper and Nokia. SDN proponents aim to run much of the work of these systems on standard computer servers controlled by programs written in high-level languages.
Managing networks through servers is hard enough. But this so-called control plane is not nearly as complex and fast moving as the data plane where bits need to get switched and routed on the fly at speeds from 10-100 Gbits/second. This is the area where Barefoot hopes its chips and P4 will play.
“We think this is a unique idea and the financial markets in Silicon Valley have validated it,” said Izzard. With partners such as Google, Goldman, HPE and other unnamed OEMs, “we have big potential customers who can ramp fast” for large Web-scale data centers and enterprise users, said Izzard who used to help big networking OEMs develop their ASICs while working at Texas Instruments.
Barefoot closed its latest round for $57 million a few weeks ago. It expects to sample chips before the end of the year to multiple customers some of whom are already starting system designs. “We can see ourselves in production in mid-2017 and have money to get beyond that and plenty of customer interest to serve,” he said.
Analyst Bob Wheeler of The Linley Group is upbeat on the new P4 language Barefoot helped create, but says the startup now has to prove its chip technology.
“I view P4 as delivering on what OpenFlow should have been — OpenFlow was supposed to deliver highly-configurable pipelines, but instead it was constrained by legacy protocols and silicon,” Wheeler said.
“P4 takes a clean-sheet approach, creating an SDN data plane with room to grow,” said Wheeler. “How quickly the market takes off will depend on hyper-scale operators like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft,” he added.
In a press release officially announcing the startup, senior managers from China’s Huawei and Tencent and others praised the Barefoot concept.
"One of the key components of LinkedIn's next-generation data center design is a programmable network fabric and we are excited about the opportunities Tofino and P4 enable to be one of the building blocks in our vision,” said Yuval Bachar, a principal engineer at LinkedIn, which Microsoft recently bid to acquire.
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