Marvell, Dell team on SmartNIC for 5G servers

HPE and Qualcomm did likewise last week, because vanilla x86 isn’t going to cut it on the edge

Dell and Marvell have linked arms to create an accelerator card for servers used in 5G networks.

Announced today ahead of the Mobile World Congress (MWC) conference, the "Dell Open RAN Accelerator Card" uses Marvell's Octeon – silicon dedicated to networking chores – so that the CPUs housed in PowerEdge servers used in 5G networks are freed from processing Layer 1 traffic, and can instead focus on running the Open RAN.

Freeing up the CPU for critical workloads and leaving an accelerator to handle plumbing is the same reasoning the likes of Intel, Nvidia, VMware, Pensando, and most hyperscale clouds offer for their decision to add accelerators to servers under the name SmartNIC, Infrastructure Processing Unit or Data Processing Unit. Qualcomm and HPE launched a very similar accelerator last week.

In one regard, this is the way 5G was supposed to happen – the standard encourages disaggregation rather than reliance on single vendors and closed standards.

On the other hand, developing accelerators is recognition that the vision of x86-powered servers satisfying every niche is not entirely realistic – as with both Dell and HPE deciding their boxen need help, it is clear that vanilla servers aren't always up to the job.

Dell is at least trying to make those servers easier to wield, as accompanying its Mobile World Congress announcement of the Accelerator is news of the "Dell Bare Metal Orchestrator management software", code that allows wide and rapid deployment of desired server images (provided they're running 5G stacks from VMware, Red Hat or Wind River) to hundreds or thousands of machines. Which is just what's needed once servers are found bolted on to 5G radio sites across a network.

The accompanying "Bare Metal Orchestrator Modules" allow management of servers across their lifecycle.

Dell has teased this stuff since its October 2021 re-definition of hyperconverged infrastructure as a single-node affair, rather than relying on local clusters.

Reference implementations have of course been cooked up to make this all work as you'd expect because it's a competent vendor that has noticed the opportunity 5G represents. Sam Saba, Dell's head of telecom for Asia Pacific & Japan, told The Register the company has also hired the expertise it needs to satisfy carrier customers.

Saba said when he joined Dell a year ago, it had around 100 staff in the telco team. That number's now closer to 1,000 and Saba said it should end the year with double that number on the books. The company already has a reference customer for a Dell-powered disaggregated 5G – Singaporean carrier Singtel.

As it happens, Singtel said on Tuesday it will offer its 5G-network-as-a-service, with packaged solutions for different industries, and the ability to consume Singtel-provided edge compute resource.

That last capability smells a bit like Dell's Validated Design for Services Edge, which was upgraded ahead of MWC. The house that Mike built has also announced "ProDeploy for NFVI" to offer templates that enable faster network function virtualization rollout and management. ®

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