New infrastructure opens up new opportunities for SmartNICs

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As part of President Joseph Biden’s aggressive efforts to develop renewable energy, a plan has been recently announced this would allow the creation of commercial offshore wind farms along much of the California coast. The move marks one of the federal government’s most important moves to promote wind power along the West Coast. It’s all part of the larger plan to build new American infrastructure and a clean energy economy.

All of this new infrastructure also means massive data expansion – and all of that data needs to be harnessed and delivered. The old ways of delivering data will not suffice. However, there is a real opportunity here for SmartNICs, and in particular programmable SmartNICs.

Dealing with the data deluge

Today almost all information is digitized. Public infrastructure such as water distribution, rail systems and power plants are all accessible and controlled via networks. And huge amounts of data are created and stored in these networks, especially as the adoption of the cloud continues and more and more IoT devices, such as sensors, are implemented. Indeed, analysts of Juniper research estimate that the global number of industrial IoT connections will increase by more than 100% over the next few years, from 17.7 billion in 2020 to more than 36.8 billion in 2025.

Like other forms of critical infrastructure, wind farm infrastructure involves a lot of complexity and a lot of data. At the top of each tower, numerous sensors and PLCs generate huge amounts of data. All of that data is then fed into what is essentially a small server, at the top of the tower, just behind the turbine. Coming out of the towers, from a network point of view, they are optical links. These are usually configured in rings, due to the need for built-in redundancy. It also helps with resilience, to help account for things like a fishing boat trawling a fiber optic cable. This is where all the SCADA control takes place – all the low-level supervisory control and network management.

It is the same situation whether wind farms are offshore or on-shore. These turbines are installed in very remote areas, which means they have to be very tough, because if things go wrong with these control systems, they deteriorate in a matter of milliseconds. If the control system breaks down and brakes when it shouldn’t, or points the blades the wrong way, that’s a major problem.

SmartNIC and infrastructure network

All of the wind turbine’s networking takes place in this small server – and in the future, it will look more and more like a small edge data center on top of the tower. These edge data centers are severely constrained in terms of space, power, and cooling. They must be highly reliable and able to operate autonomously with only intermittent WAN connectivity. Remote management is essential, as well as the ability to update their software remotely, reliably and securely.

SmartNIC capabilities are useful in this scenario. You can offload many packet processing functions to run on a SmartNIC. This optimizes the use of the server’s processor cores, so that the maximum number of cores is available to run operational workloads rather than performing networking functions. This high volume of data must also be processed with low latency for it to be used efficiently, which is accomplished through the on-premises edge data center rather than backhauling all data to the cloud.

The growing landscape of cyber threats

We have seen that critical infrastructure is becoming an increasingly juicy target for cybercriminals. Think about what we saw with the Colonial pipeline attack, for example, or recent attempts on municipal water systems. In fact, during Biden’s recent meeting with Russian Vladimir Putin, the cybersecurity of critical infrastructure was a key topic – Biden even presenting to Putin a list of 16 sectors it should be “off limits” for such attacks.

As the growth of wind farms and other new infrastructure continues, these will become a bigger target for cyber attacks – this should not be ignored. Full visibility and control will be needed to keep these networks secure, which is another area where SmartNICs can play a key role. To protect networks against the most advanced cyber threats, SmartNICs deliver data to security applications such as intrusion detection systems (IDS), data loss prevention (DLP), and information and event management security (SIEM). Security data collection systems can discover and contain threats faster based on real-time data from critical network links.

A SmartNIC can enable real-time network information and action – delivering data faster, more efficiently, and on demand to applications that establish a network-wide view of what’s going on. And that means network managers can correlate data from different parts of the network, so the right defense measures can be deployed where they are needed.

An essential role for SmartNICs

As Biden strives to aggressively develop infrastructure and clean energy in the United States, this opportunity also opens up a whole new set of data and security challenges. These systems generate massive amounts of data that must be managed and protected. The need for redundancy and resilience is high. There is a real opportunity here for SmartNICs. They allow remote management capabilities and remote software updates. Additionally, SmartNICs optimize server processor cores and enhance security with complete data visibility and control. This kind of real-time information and actions will be essential as modern infrastructure is built, data proliferates and cyber attacks become more sophisticated.


Written by Charlie Ashton.

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