Chips From Barefoot to Offer Blazing Speed, Programmability

A new series of high performance chips, dubbed Tofino, run at a rate of 6.5 terabits per second, twice as fast as any other on the market, and can be programmed to change functionality. Developed by Palo Alto-based computer networking company Barefoot Networks, they are designed so that it won’t take a hardware specialist to code the chips. Due out later this year, the chips will reside inside networking switches, which direct traffic across the Internet. For companies such as Google and Facebook, the ability to program a chip opens up tremendous opportunities.

Wired notes Google and Facebook in particular, “couldn’t really make things work without a new breed of networking hardware,” and began to design their own switches. But the purpose-built chips were hard-coded and thus had their limits, which is why Google, Microsoft and LinkedIn “have shown interest in Barefoot’s chips, with some actively participating in their development.”


“Their bandwidth requirements are growing at a pace that’s unlike anything we’ve seen in the past,” said The Linley Group analyst Bob Wheeler about Internet companies. “The pace of change has increased dramatically.”

P4, the language used to program the chips, is open source, and Barefoot co-founder/chair Nick McKeown, who is also a Stanford University computer science professor, reports that the company “will eventually open source designs for switches that use Tofino,” meaning that anyone will be able to “build and use hardware equipped with these chips or similar chips.” The choice to go with open source was to accelerate adoption of the technology.

Barefoot will also shake up the global hardware market, since Google, Facebook and other Internet titans will be able to design their own hardware and have it manufactured by companies smaller than today’s hardware vendors HP, IBM, Dell, Cisco and Juniper.

“The market is no longer dominated by a few big names,” explains Wired. “If you’re building a computer network, your options are myriad.” According to McKeown, Barefoot is already working “with three of the top four American Internet companies and many top Chinese Internet companies,” although he won’t name them. The company has also had conversations with AT&T.

“Nowadays, these big data center operators have a much, much better sense of what they want their networks to do than a chip designer,” said McKeown. “We’re giving them weapons that let them use their own expertise.”

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