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Q&A: Bruce Tolley of Solarflare on Customised Compute

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Marrying compute power with low-latency network communications is increasingly necessary for financial applications looking to combine intelligence with outright speed. IntelligentTradingTechnology.com spoke with Bruce Tolley, vice president of solutions marketing at Solarflare Communications to get his take on this emerging trend.

Q: What is the ApplicationOnload Engine (AOE), and how is it related to your existing OpenOnload functionality?

A: The ApplicationOnload Engine takes the paradigm of reconfigurable computing with FPGAs to the next level, we call this “Customised Compute.”  We achieve this through the innovative integration of an advanced FPGA processing engine and Solarflare’s industry-leading, low-latency 10GbE server adapter.  The AOE also supports tight integration with Solarflare’s OpenOnload user level networking stack to accelerate applications in user space.

Q: What’s the business driver for developing this offering?  Why is it needed?

A: There are performance pain points in high frequency trading and other vertical applications where the applications running on host server CPUs cannot execute  fast enough for the business need.  On Wall Street, such pain points exist in risk checking, symbol filtering, and line arbitration between A and B market data feeds, just to name a few.  Solarflare’s AOE platform enables users to move portions of these critical applications from traditional server processing to the AOE’s high-speed processing engine, significantly boosting application performance while providing a transparent interface to the network.

Q: What are the benefits provided by the SFA6902F AOE adapter?

A: The ApplicationOnload Engine possesses several key attributes that benefit end users and application developers.  The AOE delivers bump-in-the wire processing of network data.  It is optimised for network-centric, compute-intensive applications.  It enables both pre- and post- processing of data at 10Gb/second line rate which reduces the processing load on the host by reducing load on the CPU, memory and I/O, thereby freeing host processor cycles for other functions and applications.  Furthermore, the AOE provides an open platform for the development and deployment of customised compute applications.

Q: How is the AOE platform “open”?

A: The Solarflare AOE is an open platform designed to run network acceleration applications developed by third-parties and end-users. To enable openness and the development of these applications, Solarflare offers a comprehensive development environment.  The development resources include a firmware development kit with a complete set of FPGA board services, APIs, IP cores, and a full data path inside the device.  The AOE platform is also open to a growing list of ecosystem partners providing third party tools, IP cores and services that support AOE application development.

Q: What are the functional components that comprise the SFA6902 AOE card?

A: The AOE cards includes the following functional elements:  Altera Stratix V FPGA, Solarflare high-performance, low-latency controller ASIC, complete set of industry-tested and broadly -deployed Linux kernel drivers, and our OpenOnload user level networking stack.

Q: What are some of the applications that you expect to be developed using the ApplicationOnload Engine?

A: A wide range of applications can benefit from development on and the deployment of an AOE, including those in financial services, network security, signal processing, oil and gas exploration, analytics, and video processing.  We are working internally and with partners to develop a wide range of applications such as packet capture, packet filtering, and intrusion detection. Solarflare’s architectural approach also offers developers and end users a focused, robust development environment.

The AOE was developed using a system-level approach, combining software and hardware into a single, plug-and-play solution that brings applications closer to the network to improve system performance.  This architecture allows users to determine which portions of code benefit most from hardware processing, and which portions are most effectively processed in software on the host server.  This hybrid approach allows users to optimize their compute and network infrastructure for their application processing.

Q: How are you helping trading firms and third parties develop for ApplicationOnload Engine?  What services, building blocks are you proving?

A: The Solarflare AOE firmware development kit (FDK) is available for third parties and end-users including trading firms to develop applications for the AOE.  The FDK simplifies the development process by abstracting all board management services from designers, including initialization, network connectivity, memory, power, and thermal management.  Developers simply design to an abstraction layer to fully integrate their value-added custom application logic into the data path.  The FDK provides a complete development environment with both inline streaming data path interfaces, and host-based configuration and management interfaces.  Additionally the FDK integrates seamlessly with Altera’s Quartus II design suite.

In addition, to support the end-users and third parties develop and deploy applications for the AOE open platform, Solarflare has created the AOE Partner Network.  The Partner Network includes FPGA design services and tools partners who can support the development of applications as well as IP cores and application partners who can provide IP cores, application modules or complete applications that run on the AOE.

Q: Solarflare is not the only company marrying network and FPGA technology on a card.  What makes your offering unique?

A: Solarflare’s approach is unique in at least third ways.  First our hybrid approach enables users to determine which portions of the code benefit most from acceleration on the FGPA and which are most effectively processed on the host CPU.  We are not competing with Moore’s Law, just trying to help customers solve problems that the Law cannot address.  Second, the Solarflare AOE includes an industry standard 10gE server adapter with proven drivers and a data path that is pre-built so the application developer can focus on the applications.  Third, because of AOE’s ability so support Solarflare’s OpenOnload user level networking stack, applications can also be accelerated in user space.

Q: What are some other developments underway at Solarflare for the financial markets?  In particular, how are you supporting the increasingly important precision time synchronisation requirement?

A: Solarflare is shipping today two PTP-enabled 10gE server adapters, the SFN5322F and the SFN6322F.  These are the only 10gE server adapters on the market today that support IEEE 1588 PTP with full hardware assist via an on board Stratum 3 clock that supports precision time with accuracy of plus or minus 200 nanoseconds

Solarflare will be bringing out additional precision time features later this quarter including: VLAN support, active/passive bonding for failover, PPS alternative input for PTPd which synchronises the adapter and system clocks to the PPS master, and provides an API to provide PPS time offsets to third-party precision time software.

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