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Unleashing Network Performance with Microsoft Azure MANA and DPDK

By May 1, 2024User Stories

Introduction

In the modern cloud computing era, network performance and efficiency are paramount. Microsoft Azure has been at the forefront of this revolution, introducing innovative solutions like the Microsoft Azure Network Adapter (MANA) and integrating the Data Plane Development Kit (DPDK) to enhance the network capabilities of Azure virtual machines.

In this user story we interview Brian Denton, and Matt Reat, Senior Program Managers for Azure Core. Brian’s role has been pivotal, focusing on engaging with all network virtual appliance partners to ensure they are prepared and supported for the introduction of a new Network Interface Card (NIC) into Azure. 

Matt’s journey at Microsoft began primarily within the networking domain. His career commenced with network monitoring before transitioning, about four years ago, into what is referred to as the host networking space. This area encompasses the SDN software stack and hardware acceleration efforts aimed at enhancing customers’ ability to utilize an open virtual network (OVN) and improve their overall experience on Azure. 

A natural progression of his work has involved spearheading innovations in software and the development of hardware, which have recently been introduced to the public as Azure Boost. Additionally, his contributions include the development of the MANA NIC, a product developed in-house at Microsoft. 

The Genesis of Azure MANA

Azure MANA represents a leap in network interface technology, designed to provide higher throughput and reliability for Azure virtual machines. As the demand for faster and more reliable cloud services grows, Azure’s response with MANA smartNICs marks a significant milestone, aiming to match and surpass AWS Nitro-like functions in network and storage speed acceleration. 

Microsoft’s strategy encompasses a comprehensive approach, with a primary focus on hardware acceleration from top to bottom. This effort involves current work being conducted on the host and in the hypervisor (Hyper-V), aiming to advance hardware capabilities. Such initiatives are also being pursued by competitors, including AWS with its Nitro system and Google with a similar project, marking Microsoft’s contribution to this competitive field.

Behind the scenes, the team implemented several enhancements that remained undisclosed until the announcement of Azure Boost last July. This development compelled them to reveal their progress, especially with the introduction of the MANA NIC, which had been concealed from customer view until then.

The introduction of the new MANA NIC, boasting ratings of up to 200 Gbps in networking throughput, represents a significant enhancement of the current Azure offerings, in-line with Microsoft’s competition. The reliance on off-the-shelf solutions proved to be cost-prohibitive, prompting a shift to a fully proprietary, in-house solution integrated with their Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA).

DPDK’s Role in Azure’s Network Evolution

DPDK offers a set of libraries and drivers that accelerate packet processing on a wide array of CPU architectures. Microsoft Azure’s integration of DPDK into its Linux Virtual Machines (VMs) is specifically designed to address the needs of applications that demand high throughput and low latency, making Azure a compelling choice for deploying network functions virtualization (NFV), real-time analytics, and other network-intensive workloads.

The technical essence of DPDK’s acceleration capabilities lies in its bypass of the traditional Linux kernel network stack. By operating in user space, DPDK enables direct access to network interface cards (NICs), allowing for faster data plane operations. This is achieved through techniques such as polling for packets instead of relying on interrupts, batch processing of packets, and extensive use of CPU cache to avoid unnecessary memory access. Additionally, DPDK supports a wide range of cryptographic algorithms and protocols for secure data processing, further enhancing its utility in cloud environments.

Azure enhances DPDK’s capabilities by offering support for a variety of NICs optimized for use within Azure’s infrastructure, including those that support SR-IOV (Single Root I/O Virtualization), providing direct VM access to physical NICs for even lower latency and higher throughput. Azure’s implementation also includes provisions for dynamically managing resources such as CPU cores and memory, ensuring optimal performance based on workload demands.

Microsoft’s commitment to DPDK within Azure Linux VMs underscores a broader strategy to empower developers and organizations with the tools and platforms necessary to build and deploy high-performance applications at scale. By leveraging DPDK’s packet processing acceleration in conjunction with Azure’s global infrastructure and services, users can achieve the highest possible performance on Azure. 

Enhancing Cloud Networking with Azure MANA and DPDK

Azure MANA and DPDK work in tandem to push the boundaries of cloud networking. MANA’s introduction into Azure’s ecosystem not only enhances VM throughput but also supports DPDK, enabling network-focused Azure partners and customers to access hardware-level functionalities. When introducing a new Network Interface Card (NIC), it is essential to have support for the Data Plane Development Kit (DPDK). The primary concern is that Azure customers will begin to encounter Mana NICs across various Virtual Machine (VM) sizes, necessitating support for these devices. This situation highlights a notable challenge.

The scenario involves three NICs and two Mellanox drivers requiring support, indicating a significant transition. The introduction of this new NIC and its drivers is intended for long-term use. The goal is for the MANA driver to be forward-compatible, ensuring that the same driver remains functional many yearsfrom now, without the need to introduce new drivers for new NICs with future revisions, as previously experienced with ConnectX and Mellanox.

The objective is a long-term support driver that abstracts hardware changes in Azure and the cloud affecting guest VMs, offering a steadfast solution for network I/O. Although the future specifics remain somewhat to be determined, the overarching aim is to support the features available on Azure, focusing on those needs rather than the broader spectrum of Mellanox’s customer requirements. Some features necessary for Azure may not be provided by Mellanox, and vice versa. Thus, the ultimate goal is to support Azure customers with tailored features, ensuring compatibility and functionality for the long term.

Microsoft offers a wide array of networking appliances that are essential to their customers’ architectures in Azure. Therefore, part of their effort and emphasis on supporting DPDK is to ensure our customers receive the support they need to operate their tools effectively and achieve optimal performance.

Supporting DPDK is essential to accommodate those toolsets. Indeed, maximizing the use of our hardware is also crucial. This is an important point because there’s potential for greater adoption of DPDK.

Matt Reat, Senior Program Manager at Microsoft

Typically, Microsoft’s users, mainly those utilizing network virtual appliances, leverage DPDK, and they are observing increased adoption not only among Microsoft’s Virtual Academy’s but also among customers who express intentions to use DPDK. It’s not limited to virtual appliance products alone. They also have large customers with significant performance requirements who seek to maximize their Azure performance. To achieve this, leveraging DPDK is absolutely essential.

The Technicals of MANA and DPDK

The MANA poll mode driver library (librte_net_mana) is a critical component in enabling high-performance network operations within Microsoft Azure environments. It provides specialized support for the Azure Network Adapter Virtual Function (VF) in a Single Root I/O Virtualization (SR-IOV) context. This integration facilitates direct and efficient access to network hardware, bypassing the traditional networking stack of the host operating system to minimize latency and maximize throughput.

By leveraging the DPDK (Data Plane Development Kit) framework, the MANA poll mode driver enhances packet processing capabilities, allowing applications to process network packets more efficiently. This efficiency is paramount in environments where high data rates and low latency are crucial, such as in cloud computing, high-performance computing, and real-time data processing applications.

The inclusion of SR-IOV support means that virtual functions of the Azure Network Adapter can be directly assigned to virtual machines or containers. This direct assignment provides each VM or container with its dedicated portion of the network adapter’s resources, ensuring isolated, near-native performance. It allows for scalable deployment of network-intensive applications without the overhead typically associated with virtualized networking.

Overall, the technical sophistication of the MANA poll mode driver library underscores Microsoft Azure’s commitment to providing advanced networking features that cater to the demanding requirements of modern applications. Through this library, Azure ensures that its cloud infrastructure can support a wide range of use cases, from web services to complex distributed systems, by optimizing network performance and resource utilization.

“The MANA poll mode driver library, coupled with DPDK’s efficient packet processing, allows us to optimize network traffic at a level we couldn’t before. It’s about enabling our customers to achieve more with their Azure-based applications.”

Matt Reat, Senior Program Manager at Microsoft

The setup procedure for MANA DPDK outlined in Microsoft’s documentation provides a practical foundation for these advancements, ensuring that users can leverage these enhancements with confidence. Furthermore, the support for Microsoft Azure Network Adapter VF in an SR-IOV context, as implemented in the MANA poll mode driver library, is a testament to the technical prowess underlying this integration.

Performance Evaluation and Use Cases

Evaluating the performance impact of MANA and DPDK on Linux VMs highlights significant improvements in networking performance. Azure’s documentation provides insights into setting up DPDK for Linux VMs, emphasizing the practical benefits and scenarios where the combination of MANA and DPDK can dramatically improve application responsiveness and data throughput. 

Microsoft effectively utilizes the Data Plane Development Kit (DPDK) on the host side to optimize network performance across its Azure services. This approach not only supports customer applications by enhancing the speed and efficiency of data processing on virtual machines but also strengthens Microsoft’s own infrastructure. 

By leveraging DPDK, Azure can handle higher data loads more effectively, which is crucial for performance-intensive applications. For a deeper understanding of how DPDK facilitates these improvements in cloud computing, view the latest webinar, “Hyperscaling in the Cloud,” which discusses the scale and scope of DPDK’s impact on Azure’s network architecture. 

“We’re aiming to push the boundaries of network performance within Azure, leveraging MANA alongside DPDK to achieve unprecedented throughput and reliability for our virtual machines.” 

Brian Denton, Senior Program Manager, Microsoft Azure Core

Significant emphasis is placed on the first 200 gig NIC, highlighting a substantial focus on achieving high throughput. Additionally, the necessity to support a high packet rate stands as a corollary to this objective. To comprehend and benchmark their throughput across various packet sizes, extensive work is undertaken. DPDK serves as the primary method for testing their hardware in this regard.

Microsoft’s engineering counterparts focus on the overall testing methodology for developing a DPDK driver set, as well as testing the hardware itself and the VM performance on that hardware. This includes client-side involvement in testing. Currently, only Linux is officially supported for DPDK, although there have been attempts to use Windows and FreeBSD. Various host configurations also play a crucial role in qualifying their hardware.

Future Directions and Community Engagement

As Azure continues to evolve, the collaboration between Microsoft’s engineering teams and the open-source community remains vital. The development of MANA and its integration with DPDK reflects a broader commitment to open innovation and community-driven improvements in cloud networking.

Conclusion

As Microsoft Azure continues to evolve, the partnership between Microsoft’s engineering teams and the DPDK open-source community is poised to play a crucial role in shaping the future of cloud networking. The development of the Microsoft Azure Network Adapter (MANA) and its integration with the Data Plane Development Kit (DPDK) underscore a commitment to leveraging open innovation and fostering community-driven advancements.

The future role of Azure MANA, in conjunction with the DPDK community, is expected to focus on breaking new technical limits in cloud networking. This collaboration could lead to significant enhancements in network performance, including higher throughput, reduced latency, and greater efficiency in packet processing. By leveraging DPDK’s efficient packet processing capabilities alongside the hardware acceleration offered by MANA, Azure aims to provide an optimized networking stack that can meet the demanding requirements of modern applications and services.

Moreover, this is likely to drive the development of new features and capabilities that are specifically tailored to the needs of Azure’s diverse user base. This could include advancements in virtual network functions (VNFs), network function virtualization (NFV), and software-defined networking (SDN), which are essential components in a cloud-native networking landscape.

The open-source nature of DPDK also ensures that the broader community can contribute to and benefit from these developments, promoting a cycle of continuous improvement and innovation. This collaborative approach not only enhances the capabilities of Azure’s networking services but also contributes to the evolution of global cloud networking standards and practices.

Ultimately, the future of Microsoft Azure MANA and the DPDK open-source community is likely to be characterized by the breaking of current technical barriers, the introduction of groundbreaking networking solutions, and the establishment of Azure as a leading platform for high-performance, cloud-based networking services.

Check out the summary and additional use cases on Hyperscaling in the Cloud here.

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