Stanford Professor's Startup Plans Novel Networking Chips



Barefoot Networks distributes these development systems to help potential customers prepare to make software that works on its chips. ENLARGE
Barefoot Networks distributes these development systems to help potential customers prepare to make software that works on its chips. Photo: Barefoot Networks

An influential academic who helped define a new wave of networking is laying plans to unleash the next, hoping to displace chips that have long held a dominant position in the field.

Barefoot Networks, a startup co-founded by Stanford University professor Nick McKeown, on Tuesday is disclosing plans to sell ultrafast chips for switching systems that can be programmed in new ways. The idea is to let companies add special features to their networks, improve security and eliminate costly special-purpose hardware.

The Palo Alto, Calif., company also announced a new $57 million funding round led by Alphabet Inc.’s Google unit and an investment arm of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., taking its total raised to date to $130 million.

Barefoot is mounting a direct challenge to Broadcom Ltd. AVGO -0.68 % , the clear leader in a switching-chip market that analysts value at more than $2 billion annually. Potential customers include cloud service providers and makers of networking hardware such as Cisco Systems Inc., CSCO -0.14 % which sometimes uses Broadcom chips and sometimes designs its own.

Most such chips include circuitry that follows protocols that govern how computers communicate. Barefoot says its chips, by contrast, feature circuitry that is good at moving data but lets users choose specific protocols and make other choices about how they behave.

It’s a pretty impressive approach to opening up the last frontier of networking.

John Burke, analyst

Mr. McKeown compares the approach to Nvidia Corp. NVDA -0.87 % , a company whose chips are good at rendering videogame images but can be programmed for other number-crunching tasks.

“We are essentially trying to build Nvidia for networking,” he said.

Customers could use the programmability for many purposes, Mr. McKeown said. Obvious choices, he said, would be to let switching systems take over jobs that now need separate boxes known as load balancers and firewalls. They could also handle chores for moving data to storage systems that now require separate hardware, he said.

Mr. McKeown said programmable switches could also play a greater role in computer security by inspecting data packets as they arrive—for purposes such as detecting malicious software or preventing networks from being overwhelmed with data in the type of digital assault known as a denial of service attack.

John Burke, an analyst at Nemertes Research, said another appeal is letting customers get new features by relying on their own programmers or third-party software companies rather than waiting for hardware companies to deliver them.

“It’s a pretty impressive approach to opening up the last frontier of networking,” he said.

Nick McKeown, co-founder of Barefoot Networks. ENLARGE
Nick McKeown, co-founder of Barefoot Networks. Photo: Barefoot Networks

The notion of programmable networking chips isn’t new, but most prior efforts sacrificed speed for programmability, Mr. McKeown said. Barefoot says its new switching chip, dubbed Tofino, can process 6.5 trillion bits of data per second—double the speed of the fastest comparable technology on the market.

A Broadcom spokesman declined to comment.

Mr. McKeown, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering, has made waves before. He teamed up with university colleagues and industry engineers in backing the notion of software-defined networking, or SDN, which can manage networks centrally on a standard server computer rather than requiring many special-purposes boxes.

Mr. McKeown was a co-founder of Nicira Inc., an SDN pioneer that VMware Inc. VMW -2.45 % bought for $1.26 billion in 2012.

He is “one of the deepest thinkers about the future of networking,” said Reed Hastings, chief executive of Netflix Inc., NFLX -0.32 % who calls himself a longtime friend.

The startup, incorporated in May 2013, operated initially out of a commercial garage before expanding next door. Other co-founders include two networking chip veterans from Texas Instruments Inc. TXN 0.05 % Martin Izzard, Barefoot’s chief executive, and Pat Bosshart, its chief technology officer.

Initial seed funding for the 80-employee company came from Mr. McKeown and John Hennessy, who stepped down recently as president of Stanford University. Barefoot has raised $75 million to date, led by venture-capital firms Sequoia Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Andreessen Horowitz.

The startup’s plans rely heavily on P4, a language for programming network functions that was developed by engineers at companies including Intel Corp. INTC -1.12 % and Google Inc. Though Barefoot doesn’t expect to deliver sample chips until the fourth quarter, Mr. McKeown said potential customers have used P4 to develop programs that could later work on Barefoot-based hardware.

One former Broadcom executive said its chips are flexible enough for most chores, arguing that only particularly sophisticated customers would want to do more programming. Mr. McKeown said Barefoot will try to please a broad audience by offering software for basic networking functions along with its chips.

Peter Hortensius, senior vice president and chief technology officer of computer maker Lenovo Group Ltd. LNVGY -4.06 % , said Barefoot has a long way to go to prove its vision is feasible. He added: “If they can do what they say, that’s big news.”

Don Clark at


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