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For much of the history of computer virtualization, workloads have been limited by the power of CPUs and to a lesser extent GPUs, in order to handle computation, networking, storage, security and artificial intelligence (AI) requirements. There is however another way.

At the VMware Explore conference today, Dell Technologies and Nvidia are officially announcing the launch of a new data center solution that integrates Dell PowerEdge servers, the new VMware vSphere 8 virtualization platform, alongside Nvidia GPUs and for the first time Nvidia BlueField 2 DPUs (data processing unit) as well.

A DPU is a dedicated piece of silicon hardware designed to handle certain data processing tasks. Those tasks can include security and network routing for data traffic, in an approach that is intended to help reduce the load on CPUs and GPUs for core computing tasks related to a given workload. VMware had been working together with Nvidia on an effort known as Project Monterey for the last two years to enable the vSphere virtualization platform to support the BlueField DPUs and that effort has finally come to fruition.

“Modern applications such as AI, are continuing to generate massive amounts of data and processing that data is consuming CPU cycles,” Kevin Deierling, senior vice president of networking at Nvidia explained during a press briefing.

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Deierling commented that another issue impacting CPU utilization is the way that modern applications are now built. Modern virtualized and container-based applications are no longer single monolithic stacks, but rather are composed with a set of distributed micro-services that consume more CPU cycles.

“CPU capacity is being consumed both with the security aspects of moving data around and the  massive amounts of east-west traffic to allow these distributed applications to communicate with each other and actually share all of the data,” Deierling said. “So that’s the problem that we’re able to solve with this new BlueField DPU data processing unit integrated with vSphere.”

The new era of DPUs for CPU offload is here

The move toward more usage of DPUs as well as infrastructure processing units (IPUs) is part of an emerging industry trend.

Back on June 21, the Linux Foundation launched a new initiative around DPUs called the Open Programmable Infrastructure Project (OPI), which counts Nvidia, Intel, Dell and Marvell among its members. The goal of OPI is to help develop industry open standards around DPUs and IPUs. Marvell has been building out its own Octeon DPU technology, while Intel has been developing its infrastructure process unit (IPU) approach.

Deierling explained that the Nvidia BlueField is a new class accelerated computing processor that runs the infrastructure software of the data center. The BlueField combines networking accelerators and embedded ARM CPU cores. 

“This combination simplifies infrastructure and management, boosts performance and strengthens security,” Deierling said. “And now this is all fully integrated with VMware vSphere running on the BlueField DPU.”

How Nvidia BlueField will accelerate security and AI for VMware

The new VMware vSphere 8 release will now support Nvidia BlueField2 DPUs which will have a significant impact on networking, storage and AI workloads.

Part of VMware’s overall virtualization platform is the company’s NSX software defined networking technology. NSX in recent years has also played a strong role in VMware’s security strategy, enabling networking isolation and firewall capabilities.

“With the NSX security running on the DPU, enterprises can now put a firewall in every server,” Deierling said. 

The benefit of having an NSX-based firewall with the Nvidia BlueField DPU is that it can help organizations to support zero-trust efforts. The basic idea behind zero trust is to have continuous authentication and pervasive encryption to help protect data. Deierling added that having NSX networking security running on the BlueField DPU also provides a new layer of isolation between the application and the infrastructure processing domains. 

Nvidia also expects that the integration of its DPU technology with VMware’s vSphere will also accelerate AI workloads. Deierling noted that the DPU optimization is fully integrated with Nvidia AI enterprise running on VMware vSphere as both virtual machines and containers.

For developers and existing applications, getting the benefit of the new BlueField-2 DPUs will happen automatically.

“One of the things that we strive to do is preserve all of the existing API’s and interfaces and we’ve worked very closely with VMware,” Deierling said. “The API’s and all of the things that you might use, you’ll call those and then instead of it executing on an x86 CPU, it will actually simply be offloaded and accelerated onto the BlueField-2, so really from an application perspective the consumption of those APIs is identical.”

General availability of the new Dell Technologies servers with Nvidia BlueField-2 DPU and VMware vSphere 8 is set for later this year. Nvidia has also set up an environment with its LaunchPad service to let users virtually try out the technology before it is physically available.

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