Bespoke Processors and the Future of Networks

By Russ White
Russ White

As I spend a lot of time on Oak Island (not the one on television, the other one), I tend to notice some of those trivial things in life. For instance, when the tide is pretty close to all the way in, it probably is not going to come in much longer; rather, it is likely to start going back out soon. If you spend any time around clocks with pendulums, you might have noticed the same thing; the maximum point at which the pendulum swings is the point where it also begins swinging back. Of course my regular readers are going to recognize the point, because I have used it in many presentations about the centralization/decentralization craze the networking industry seems to go through every few years.

Right now, of course, we are in the craze of centralization. To hear a lot of folks tell it, in ten years there simply are not going to be routing protocols. Instead, we are going to all buy appliances, plug them in, and it is "just going to work." And that is just for folks who insist on having their own network — for the part of the world that is not completely consumed by the cloud.

But remember, when the tide seems highest…

This last week an article in another part of the information technology world caught my eye that illustrates the point well enough that it is worth looking at. Almost everyone in IT knows, of course, that Moore's law is dying; there is not much hope that we will be able to double the number of transistors in a processor forever. Not that there ever was any hope that this could go on forever, but it does seem like there was a long stretch there where all you had to do was wait a couple of years, and you could buy a processor that was twice as fast, and twice as powerful.

Note: I wonder how many people have considered that maybe the PC is not "going away," but rather that sales are slowing down, at least in part, because unboxing a new one no longer means a major performance boost?

The problem is, of course, that processing needs are not slowing down in line with the death of Moore's law. What is the solution to this problem? Bespoke processors.

It's a well-known and necessary truth: In order to have programmability and flexibility, there's simply going to be more stuff on a processor than any one application will use. —Samuel K. Moore @ IEEE Spectrum / 24 Jul 2017

What is happening is no less than a revolution in the idea of how a processor is built. Rather than building a processor that can do anything, companies are now starting to build a processor that can do one thing really well, with a minimum of overhead (such as power and cooling).

What really set me to thinking about this is the news that the Apple iPad actually carries a specialized processor, the most current version of which seems to be the A11 and A11X. This isn't quite a bespoke processor, of course, because tablets are still designed to do a wide range of tasks. But lets not forget the Network Processing Units (NPUs, which we normally just call ASICs) housed in most routers and switches. Nor the Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) housed in most video systems and electronic currency mining operations.

What we are actually seeing in the processor world is the beginning of the end of the centralized model. No longer will one processor solve "every" problem; rather computers will need to become, must become, even more of a collection of processors than they have ever been in the past. But this is the key, isn't it? The centralized model will continue alongside the decentralized model, each solving different sorts of problems. There will be no "one processor to rule them all."

Now let's turn to the networking world. Once you build a single network that can solve every problem, you will no longer need the "others," correct? Isn't this just what we were promised in the processor world? One processor that could solve "every" problem?

If it doesn't work for processors, why do we think it will work for networks? There is no analog to Moore's Law in the networking world, but perhaps there should be — because unlike the processing world, we cannot see when we are about to "hit the wall," and a new wave of decentralization is going to take place.

But it will, at some point. Bespoke networks are not, contrary to the current hype, a thing of the past, any more than the GPU and the NPU seemed to be things of the past just a few short years ago. In the real world, there is always value to be had in removing functionality that does not need to be there, just as much as there is value to be had in adding functionality.

The question is not whether or not there will still be bespoke networks in five years. The question is: what will these networks look like? This new wave of decentralization will not look like the current appliance based model — this much is a given — just like modern bespoke processors are not going to look like the older generations of purpose built processors.

The task of network engineers is not to simply jump ship into the centralized world. The job of network engineers is to figure out just what the "new" decentralized is going to look like, and help build it.

By Russ White, Network Architect at LinkedIn

Related topics: Networks