Your submission was sent successfully! Close

You have successfully unsubscribed! Close

Thank you for signing up for our newsletter!
In these regular emails you will find the latest updates about Ubuntu and upcoming events where you can meet our team.Close

SmartNICs in telco: benefits and use cases

Serdar Vural

on 11 October 2023

In our previous blog, we introduced smartNICs as technology enablers for next-generation converged data centres. We covered how smartNICs can increase efficiency and drive return on investment. In this blog post, we explain how this innovative technology can help the telecom industry.

SmartNICs use cases for the telecom sector are still emerging. However, when they arrive, it will be big for the sector, especially at edge clouds where speed in user plane packet processing matters the most. 

Today, one area where the telecom sector can already benefit from smartNICs is infrastructure offload. Virtual infrastructure systems, such as Kubernetes and OpenStack, can have some of their components offloaded to smartNICs. For instance, Open Virtual Switch (OVS) and the control plane component that drives it, OVN, can be accelerated by running them on smartNICs.  

Virtual function offloads: Boosting packet processing performance 

The benefits of function offloading have already been proven. Packet processing latency can be reduced by on-board accelerators and by offloading the data path to the application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) on dedicated hardware, such as a smartNIC. For instance, packet gateways and load balancers are ideal applications that can be offloaded. Packet parsing and classification tasks can also be efficiently performed at the interface card.

In general, we can accelerate network packet processing at different layers of the communications stack, for various protocols such as IP, ICMP, and ARP, and common tasks, such as packet checksum, segmentation, and tunnelling. In fact, to get the best performance, the full networking stack can be accelerated. 

Networking functions that can be chained are well-suited to run at smartNICs, with better power-efficiency, and with smaller footprint. One concrete example of an accelerated virtual network appliance is a virtual router. Control plane tasks such as L2/L3 packet route decisions, tunnel processing, and routing table manipulation can all run on a smartNIC’s CPU, freeing up the host CPUs. Actual packets can be streamlined through the smartNIC’s packet processor, which involves anything to do with manipulating packets, e.g. L2/L3 processing, protocol implementations, and so on.

Similarly, tasks related with security, such as incline encryption, IPSec termination, and firewalls also run fast at smartNICs. This provides higher performance with lower latency for handling a high rate of incoming and outgoing packets whilst applying complex security processes.

The capability to offload network functions and to run control plane tasks on the onboard CPU has led to new ideas. Multiple smartNICs can be bundled together and presented as a new type of switch, now commonly referred to as a smart switch. It includes switch ASIC, smartNICs and conventional NICs all in one box. This unit is envisioned to replace traditional tier-1 top of rack switches, and accompany onboard smartNICs on servers in a single box. A common control plane can then manage a smart infrastructure consisting of smart switches and smartNICs.

Faster 5G software workloads

Besides infrastructure, offloading and accelerating the 5G workloads that run on the infrastructure will be the key enabler for the smartNIC technology in the telco sector. 

Accelerating telco workloads is important especially because virtualisation is now common-place in deployments, but there are concerns around reduced traffic performance when workloads run on virtualisation systems. For instance, data plane elements must be fast, e.g. 5G user plane function (UPF), and open RAN central and distributed units (CU and DU). These functions are ideal to run on hardware equipped with accelerators and dedicated packet processors onboard. 

Offloading the 5G data plane will help with improving latency and throughput performance. This is particularly important as telco operators have stringent SLA guarantees given to their customers. 

Speeding up the radio access networks

The benefits of SmartNICs at the telco far-edge cloud will be prominent. The telco edge will run next generation virtualised open RAN workloads with real-time baseband processing. By running accelerated tasks at smartNICs, operators can address the latency requirements of 5G front-haul and mid-haul connections, as well as access networks. 

Some of the telco applications that can benefit from the latency reduction offered by smartNICs are: 

  • Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR) video streaming,
  • Ultra-reliable low latency communications (uRLLC) for mission critical emergency services. 

5G radio access networks and cable networks will both be beneficiaries of smartNICs. For 5G RAN, besides open RAN CU and DU components, acceleration of various tasks will be commonplace, including for instance:

  • Protocol termination, e.g. virtualised GTP and PDCP,
  • Security ciphers and 4G/5G codec implementations.
  • L1 tasks, such as LDPC/TURBO codecs, polar codes, HARQ management, codec wrapper logic, and similar.

In case of cable networks, virtual converged cable access platform (vCCAP), virtual optical line termination (vOLT), and virtual cable modem termination system (vCMTS) are ideal targets to be powered by smartNICs.

Programmable pipelines

SmartNICs also offer short turnaround times to deploy custom solutions thanks to programmable data processors. Programmable chipsets and FPGAs provide flexibility and support non-standard and custom use cases required for 5G and access protocols. This includes flow classification functions, any new ciphers, key exchange algorithms, and so on.

Accelerated AI for telco

Artificial intelligence (AI) solutions are penetrating many sectors, and telco is one of them. With AI, operators target at making better resource management decisions at their infrastructure, particularly at radio access networks. Traffic management improvements will also boost customer experience, thanks to smart decisions made by AI algorithms.

Those smart decisions will get smarter with smartNICs. By embedding packet processing algorithms, such as training and inference, AI offloading can achieve distributed processing at scale. This can transform the traditional data centre fabric into an AI machinery, with data coming in and decisions coming out. In particular, adaptive routing and security applications can receive locally made decisions driven by collective processing by a fleet of smartNICs. Furthermore, smartNICs can reduce the total power consumption, delivering AI at scale at lower cost.

Sector requirements

The telco market is slow in adoption, but it is a large market, and the benefits of smartNICs to the sector are clear. The transition to a smartNIC based infrastructure will be gradual and cautious, as operators will need to see demonstrated deployment use cases showcasing performance, reliability, security and power-efficiency benefits.

Deploying and operating SmartNICs can be difficult for small enterprises. This means organisations will need support for their deployments, which includes the enablement of software toolchains. The key question is how do we enable a smooth user experience for organisations with no expertise on smartNICs?

Telco needs open source solutions that are hardware agnostic; only then will operators adopt smartNIC solutions at scale in the presence of multiple hardware vendors. Solutions to manage a fleet of smartNICs must be cost-effective and proven to work effortlessly. Furthermore, common APIs, languages, SDKs, and toolsets are needed.

Our SmartNIC program

At Canonical, our approach is to continuously seek ways to make data centres and cloud operations more efficient and cost-effective. Towards achieving better performance in our virtualisation infrastructure products, we work in close collaboration with hardware vendors to enable their innovative and cutting edge hardware products with our solutions. One such product group is DPU/IPUs. 

Canonical’s engineering teams are working on a full-stack of software solutions for the smartNIC market, including bare metal provisioning, optimised operating system, software lifecycle management, and function offloads.

Our teams have achieved hardware provisioning for DPUs using our remote bare metal provisioning product, Metal-as-a-Service (MAAS). This makes it possible for a data centre operator to manage both servers and smartNICs from a single pane of glass. In this year’s SmartNIC Summit event, the Canonical team demonstrated how to provision an off-the-shelf DPU with Ubuntu Core.

As part of our Charmed OpenStack product, our team has already achieved offloading OVN and OVS from a host server system onto earlier generations of smartNICs and also latest DPUs. With this offloading realised, the host can be free of networking tasks. We are expanding our support for function offloads by adding support for DPUs/IPUs in many more of our products.

Final words

SmartNIC technology is a key enabler in the next generation converged data centre architecture. The performance benefits provided by smartNICs are clear motivations to adopt the technology. Data packet processing is much faster at programmable NIC pipelines, and accelerator chips can speed up common processing tasks significantly. Control plane functions can be offloaded to NIC CPUs, which enables servers to be freed of infrastructure tasks, so that they can run only application workloads. This drives revenue growth. 

The telco sector will adopt smartNICs, even though the pace of adoption is likely to be slow. The main driver will be the speed in data packet processing – an attractive proposition for dynamically deployed virtual telco workloads that process user plane traffic. Open source, common APIs, and software solutions that can eliminate the technology barrier and bring ease of use to smaller data centre operators will enable wider adoption beyond hyperscalers. Canonical offers its products to fill this space in the technology and help enable DPUs/IPUs for telco and enterprises.

Contact us

Canonical provides a full stack for your telecom infrastructure. To learn more about our telco solutions, visit our webpage at

For more information on how telco can build a carrier-grade infrastructure with open source, check out our blog post.

kubernetes logo

What is Kubernetes?

Designed with economics in mind, Canonical's solutions for telecommunications ensure ROI, providing first class quality at the same time.
Save costs by operating your infrastructure and applications the smart way, ensuring full automation from day 0 to day N.

Learn more about Ubuntu for telco ›

Newsletter signup

Get the latest Ubuntu news and updates in your inbox.

By submitting this form, I confirm that I have read and agree to Canonical's Privacy Policy.

Related posts

What is a telco cloud?

Explore the benefits & requirements of a telco cloud. Learn how it enhances telco agility, efficiency and customer experience. Implement a successful telco...

Canonical joins the Sylva project

Canonical is proud to announce that we have joined the Sylva project of Linux Foundation Europe as a General Member. We aim to bring our open source...

How a real-time kernel reduces latency in telco edge clouds

Telco edge clouds are among the most popular and promising technologies with great potential to deliver performance improvements. An edge cloud is an...