One of the most intriguing announcements at VMware 2020 is its Project Monterey. We previously covered VMware ESXi 64-bit Arm Support Announced in 2018 and in 2019. Mellanox Bluefield-2 IPU SmartNIC Bringing AWS-like Features to VMware. The culmination of that work is Project Monterey. VMware is bringing an AWS Nitro-like feature to VMware ecosystems in the future. AWS Nitro is really a class-leading design that started in AWS around 2013. Although this is a roadmap feature, and still not at GA, it is the direction that VMware has announced it is moving. Our sense is that VMware will bring this AWS-like feature to its customers sometime in 2021, only around 8 years after AWS went down this path.
VMware Project Monterey
VMware Project Monterey leverages SmartNICs, or what we are going to call DPUs, to run vSphere/ ESXi and deliver VMware infrastructure services in a more modern manner. You can learn more about DPUs in our What is a DPU? A Data Processing Unit Quick Primer article.
With Project Monterey, we had a GPU/ SmartNIC that can run various VMware services. These include NSX for networking and security, vSAN for data storage, and host management.
Using this new solution, storage, networking, and accelerators can be abstracted. For example, if the DPU presents the storage or GPU, it can present a set of devices that span multiple physical servers to a single host. Using NVMeoF, a DPU can present itself as a NVMe block device to the host server, however, the physical drive it may be used for storage can be located on another server. This may seem like an architecture we have seen before, but DPUs are combining multiple types of functionality into a single solution.
VMware is partnering with Intel, NVIDIA, and Pensando at launch for Project Monterey, along with some of the large OEM partners. On the NVIDIA (formerly Mallanox) side, the companies are using Bluefield-2 (an update to the original BlueField) which brings together ConnectX-6 Dx 100Gb/200Gbps Ethernet or Infiniband, Arm A72 cores (to run ESXi), accelerators, onboard DDR4 memory, as well as a PCIe complex that can be an endpoint or a host.
Here is an example of a PCIe BlueField-2 NIC. One can see there is even a 1GbE management port along with the SoC and DDR4 memory.
We recently featured the Pensando Distributed Services Architecture SmartNIC. Pensando has a big focus on adding a P4 programmable front-end to its SoC but also has features such as DDR5 support. Check out that piece for more information.
There are a number of both large, as well as well-funded startups building solutions in this space so we expect more to join the Project Monterey ecosystem before it hits GA.
The impact of Project Monterey will be several-fold. First, functions such as networking and packet processing can be moved from the CPU to the SmartNIC/ DPU and accelerated with fixed-function hardware. Second, it changes the relationship a cluster has with an x86 node. In many ways, the vision for Project Monterey and DPUs, in general, to disaggregate the traditional x86 server as a type of compute or type of server along with GPU/ accelerator servers and storage servers. Third, it allows higher security along with features such as being able to securely provision bare metal servers and treat them like instance types in VMware in a more modern approach. VMware is certainly not a leader, nor really a “fast follower” here with AWS starting down this journey in 2013. Being effectively eight years behind a leader is probably closer to better late than never. Then again, VMware buyers are more focused on ease of implementation rather than getting cutting edge features for the compute hardware space.
This is not necessarily VMware using Arm servers as primary compute platforms, but what it does do is bring Arm into the data center in a much bigger way. This is a step along the line of progression that we covered in An Arm Opportunity with Cloud Service Providers.