At FMS 2022, MaxLinear, made one of the strangest claims: that it had a new DPU. The DPU or Data Processing Unit has generally become a network device that falls between a SmartNIC and an exotic FPGA solution. The MaxLinear Panther III was advertised as a “DPU” either as an assault on the intellectual prowess of conference attendees or the company’s investors. Since the term “DPU” has largely become an industry-accepted term, it was the equivalent of a manufacturer selling announcing it has a new “GPU” product even though it actually has a “SSD”.
MaxLinear Panther III is a Fake DPU at FMS 2022
This is the MaxLinear Panther III Fake DPU shown at FMS 2022. The basic concept is that it accelerates cryptographic and compression workloads. I asked the company point blank a number of questions to see if it had attributes aligned to a DPU, and their answers confirmed that it did not. It sounded like the company was calling this a DPU just to have folks come to say it was not. To be clear, the displays at the event clearly said that the product was a “DPU”, even though it is not.
For those in the industry that were unsure of where a device falls on the spectrum, we made a quick “What is a DPU?” guide and video:
At the time, we took what the industry players, including manufacturers and customers, were used to define DPUs, and distilled it into a set of criteria. In 2020, there was still some confusion about where a SmartNIC ended and where a DPU started on the spectrum.
The criteria have since been adopted by various vendors, analysts, and the press. STH has become so large with millions of monthly page views that we have become the source for much of the industry. Even large DPU vendors like NVIDIA have used some form of our definition for a DPU. We further introduced the 2021 STH NIC Continuum that has defined the difference between a basic NIC, offload NIC, SmartNIC, DPU, and exotic NIC.
These have been seen by hundreds of thousands of folks, if not more, and we have liberally given permission for others to use these frameworks in their own analyst presentations and elsewhere. The purpose was to clearly define the DPU so those looking for DPU solutions can understand what type of capabilities they will get. Likewise, we wanted to ensure DPU designations were used in the industry consistently so as not to mislead customers and investors.
An example was recently discussing the VMware vSphere 8 on DPU announcement, where an executive said “SmartNIC” on a pre-breifing. I asked the company to clarify if vSphere 8 would come to SmartNICs or DPUs, and the company confirmed they are not the same devices, and that only DPUs would be supported.
In those pieces that match others in the industry that have come out since we discussed some of the key characteristics that all DPUs, across vendors, share. Among them are:
- High-speed networking connectivity (usually multiple 100Gbps-200Gbps interfaces in this generation)
- High-speed packet processing with specific acceleration and often programmable logic (P4/ P4-like is common)
- A CPU core complex (often Arm or MIPS based in this generation)
- Memory controllers (commonly DDR4 but we also see HBM and DDR5 support)
- Accelerators (often for crypto or storage offload)
- PCIe Gen4 lanes (run as either root or endpoints)
- Security and management features (offering a hardware root of trust as an example)
- Runs its own OS separate from a host system (commonly Linux as we showed in our ZFS without a Server Using the NVIDIA BlueField-2 DPU piece, but the subject of VMware Project Monterey ESXi on Arm as another example)
At FMS 2022, I confirmed that several of these criteria were absent. For example, not only does the Panther III not include “high-speed” network connectivity, the MaxLinear products do not have networking ports at all. This was confirmed both by simple visual inspection as well as confirming with a booth representative. On the last item, as another example, at FMS 2022, I was told that the device does not run its own OS. It does have features like PCIe Gen4 and accelerators, but it has fewer than half of the mandatory features that we have seen by other DPU offerings in the industry.
- High-speed networking connectivity MaxLinear confirmed Panther III does not have
- High-speed packet processing with specific acceleration and often programmable logic MaxLinear confirmed Panther III does not have
- A CPU core complex MaxLinear confirmed Panther III does not have
- Memory controllers MaxLinear confirmed Panther III does not have controllers for OS memory (SRAM is present on most chips, but that is different from this meaning in DPUs)
- Accelerators Panther III has these
- PCIe Gen4 lanes Panther III has these
- Security and management features MaxLinear confirmed Panther III does not have, its security features are classified as “Accelerators” for these purposes
- Runs its own OS separate from a host system MaxLinear confirmed Panther III does not have
Of the eight common attributes all DPUs share, Panther III only has two. To give some sense, the degree to which MaxLinear misstated its product is not small. It was equivalent to a manufacturer calling its “SSD” a “GPU”. Both are PCIe devices. Both have PCIe interfaces (assuming this is NVMe.) Both have to process data. But they are clearly different devices that have become a term of art in the industry.
The Panther III is effectively an alternative to the Intel QuickAssist adapters, perhaps with higher level features than the older 40Gbps/ 100Gbps generations that are due to be replaced with the Intel Mount Evans IPU DPU and Sapphire Rapids. This is not on the same level as the Kalray K200-LP DPU that we evaluated via this framework and now cover under DPUs.
This is one of the more bizarre moves. There are basically two narratives that I can envision. MaxLinear’s representatives clearly knew what a DPU was and decided to name a product that is in a completely different segment that does not have the minimum feature set of a DPU, as a DPU. The motivations we do not know. A customer would be able to clearly understand that the Panther III does not have high-speed networking based on photographs. Instead, we wonder if this misleading advertising and associated press release was designed to mislead potential investors into thinking that MaxLinear is competing in the hot DPU market.
If it is the latter, we hope the US SEC and securities firms will investigate and ensure that the company was not simply using the DPU name to mislead investors into thinking the company has entered the well-defined and hot DPU market.
There is a difference between “puffing” in marketing and making false claims. This is not in the realm of what the industry considers a DPU in 2022 when the claim was made. Investors without the technical savvy to understand the distinctions must be protected from claims like a company being in the DPU market even if the product is not in that market.