From being a part of the tightly-knit group at Cisco, to co-founding Pensando and most recently being acquired by AMD, this iron-willed woman has been a pioneer in the networking industry and continues to evolve into new roles.
35 years ago, at a time when DARPA was driving the whole ARPANET initiative and the Internet was changing the way we work, live, and play; a young girl with roots in India made California her home and got into the networking industry. Though a cliché that reiterates the stereotype – a female in the predominantly male-dominated sector – needs to be highlighted as networking is a sector where the gender ratio is lop-sided and we yet have a mile to walk. But it’s your competence and skills that charter your path and she was fortunate to join Cisco about 30 years ago. This was when John Chambers was transforming the company and she went on to be a part of a very tightly-knit group of individuals atCisco who drove various innovations in the Internet sector and were famously known as MPLS. (MPLS team – Mario Mazzola, Prem Jain, Luca Cafiero, and Soni Jiandani)
Soni Jiandani, Co-Founder of Pensando and CVP, Business Management at AMD Pensando took time for an exclusive with Minu Sirsalewala, Executive Editor – Special Projects, Dataquest in her debut interaction with the Indian media, post the AMD Pensando announcement. Soni spoke extensively about her rich professional journey, and how good 12 years focusing on disruptive technologies and building startups, enabled Cisco to enter new markets and build multi-billion-dollar businesses along the way. The top team leaving, to form Pensando and its recent acquisition by AMD in 2022. How they want to serve the largest cloud customers that are in production at scale with them as well as in the enterprise, focusing energies on bringing to market new class of products like the smart switches. Excerpts from the interaction.
Can you briefly share your journey so far?
I grew up in India and finished high school here. Then I moved to London for my undergrad in computer science. Thereafter I moved back to California and my entire family is based in California. It’s been a marvelous journey in technology. I started working 35 years ago and got into the networking industry and I primarily focused on being in the technology sector as the Internet was changing the way we work, live, and play. I was fortunate to join Cisco about 30 years ago and this was when John Chambers was transforming the company. I spent 23 years with key partners who formed a very tightly-knit group of individuals where we drove various innovations in the Internet sector. We extensively focused on disruptive technologies and building startups, which would enable Cisco to enter new markets. And we’re very fortunate to have crossed multiple chasms in this span and build multi-billion-dollar businesses for Cisco along the way.
We left Cisco to form our own company called Pensando, which will be celebrating its seven-year anniversary in January of 2023. After being in the market since 2017, we looked at where the cloud vendors were going and came up with a new emerging technology called DPUs or data processing units and through that, we are on this journey of democratizing the cloud of serving the largest cloud customers that are in production at scale with us as well as in the enterprise focusing energies on bringing to market new class of products like the smart switches. Working in close collaboration with companies like HP, Aruba and with VMWare, we are one of the few companies that are in a position to deliver a wide variety of DPU technologies to enterprise and VMware customers.
We were acquired by AMD, in May of 2022. We are part of their data center business that is headed by Forrest Norrod and are super excited about being extremely complementary to AMD’s portfolio. Now with our portfolio added to AMD’s portfolio, they offer the DPU (data processing units) to their customers offering best-of-breed technologies in every category.
How has expanding into the data center capabilities with the Pensando acquisition worked out for AMD because we all know them as the processor company? How is this giving them a new leaf?
With the advancement of technology whether it is IoT or 5G as well as the forecast that Gartner’s making about 75% of all the data is going to get processed at the edges. It’s a time when domain-specific architectures like DPUs are very complementary to the AMD portfolio of CPUs. We are accelerating a lot of the functions that are software-defined in the data centers and in the cloud environments for networking, security, and distributed storage services and offloading the CPUs to run customers’ applications. While enabling both cloud and enterprise customers to build a highly secure cloud and deliver packet processing DPUs to handle software-defined networking technologies and storage technologies at the edges and driving a new architecture that companies like Amazon have been deploying since 2015 with their acquisition of a company called Annapurna Labs.
We are accelerating a lot of the functions that are software-defined in the data centers and in the cloud environments for networking, security, and distributed storage services and offloading the CPUs to run customers’ applications.
With this asset now as part of AMD, AMD is in a position to deliver to its cloud customers which have an expanded portfolio consisting of data processing units to enable them to build a more efficient, secure, and high-performing cloud that can scale and can bring the total cost of ownership models that only companies like Amazon were able to afford. But now they’re able to open it up to all their existing customers as well.
Could you share the specific solutions offered by the data center group now, especially when you talk about helping the hyperscalers and enterprises drive cost and efficiency, what would be the contribution there?
Let’s focus on the two markets that we sell through AMD. If you look at large customers like Oracle Cloud or IBM Cloud, we are already in production at scale with them. With Microsoft Azure, we are enabling them to deliver software, defined network disaggregation in their cloud, and enable them to offer new services on top of Azure. Then in the enterprise space, we have two solutions. We are creating a brand new category of switching technology called Smart switches.
We are partnering with HPE Aruba on code developing or smart switch products which allows both enterprises and service provider customers to build highly secure private on-premise clouds. We enable them to build secure on-ramp and off-ramp services with the smart switches, delivering services like IPsec encryption as well as scalable NAT services so that they can build efficient, high-performing secure colocation edge networks for their branches.
AS an enterprise or as a service provider customer, by embracing these technologies, essentially you get the benefit of a product that has 10 extra performance, 100 extra scale at 1/3 the total cost of ownership compared to the traditional infrastructure that are usually deployed within my data centers today.
The second solution is partnering with VMware. We have enabled our DPU in the servers with the vSphere rate – the ability to roll out a technology called the distributed services engine whereby VMWare takes all of their hypervisors, ESX assets as well as their network virtualization assets like NSX and runs them on top of our DPUs, therefore freeing up the server CPUs to go run customers applications at very high performance and low latency and provide a secure air gap in between.
The customers whether they are delivering SaaS services or they are Tier 2 cloud providers, can get the same experience running the VMware assets on our DPUs on their premises compared to their assets that are running in the public cloud. Those are the unique offerings that we have both within the enterprise and within the cloud space.
Tell us more about Pensando’s smart switch technology?
It’s fundamentally bringing together the AMD data processing unit assets along with our software assets to deliver stateful network services alongside the Aruba, HPE switching technologies for Layer 2, Layer 3, as well as their operating system for the data centers. We’re bringing both of those assets into a new class of products called the Smart Switch.
These products, when deployed in the data center for building our private clouds, will offer stateful network services such as DDoS protection, and stateful firewall services on every port, allowing for all your East-West traffic to become part of a zero-trust security model. You can apply policies and stateful network and security policies on a packet-by-packet basis with line rate visibility of what’s going on within your data center, since you cannot secure what you cannot see.
At the same time, this product with future enhancements and software will support line rate encryption with IPsec alongside stateful NAT services. As I have moved my data center assets into the colocation edge facilities and with the application of the smart switch in the co-location edges, I can build highly secure on-ramps and off-ramps in and out of the public cloud in a multi-cloud environment with full security and stateful services network address translation services.
In a nutshell, as an enterprise or as a service provider customer, by embracing these technologies, essentially you get the benefit of a product that has 10 extra performance, 100 extra scale at 1/3 the total cost of ownership compared to the traditional infrastructure that are usually deployed within my data centers today.
What are the challenges being faced by the enterprise to manage clusters from different edge locations? Do you think it is becoming more complex?
As you are moving more of your data processing at the edges, you have to think about an architecture that will be highly available, so that if your primary interfaces were to fail, you have secondary interfaces or active interfaces with the ability to synchronize the state across those connections, which is an attribute of the smart switch.
It also reduces the complexity because as opposed to having multiple devices each doing unique functions and managing different images across different vendors. You now have a single device that can consolidate all of these functions into one rack unit form factor and it reduces the complexity because you’re not trying to troubleshoot as you’re going across multiple devices at the edge. So the time to repair the time to troubleshoot, to diagnose where the problems lie etc. is much faster.
Finally, since all of this is managed centrally through a policy engine, we have the ability to provide you with a single pane of glass. Whereby you can manage your network policies, and your security policies with full line rate, visibility and telemetry. Through an open API interface, we can fit into customers’ existing tools that they have within their toolkit.
So as an example, if they happen to be using XDR tools coming from vendor A and they have SIEM and SOAR technologies coming from vendor B, through open APIs, we can integrate those into the Smart Switch and can integrate into those environments.
I think you’re going to see a mixture of private, hybrid and multiple public cloud environments to be the wave of the future, including the way I deal with my SaaS platforms and my infrastructure as a service cloud vendors. The same holds true for 5G and 6G based buildouts.
In some cases, we are working very closely with the ecosystem so that you can go back and reinforce the policy once you have detected that there happens to be an intruder within your environment. We are also working with more sophisticated AI ML-based back-end engines provided by third parties that will allow us, in real-time, to have the ability to detect anomalies in the environment and push back policies and reinforce and stop the intruders in their tracks on a more proactive basis. So, the goal here is to provide real-time visibility to ensure security. The ability to manage it through the ecosystem allows us to fit within the operational models that our customers have already embraced while providing them with a much more simplified design and a much more highly available design.
What kind of traction have you seen in the use cases? Are there specific verticals that are seeing faster adoption?
Yes. We are seeing tremendous traction in highly regulated industries, whether those happen to be the government or federal markets. We are also seeing tremendous traction in the financial services segments of the marketplace and healthcare segments.
Since the acquisition of our company by AMD, we have doubled the pipeline of enterprise customers that we are seeing this traction through. Last but not least, when you start to see us implementing functions like encryption and stateful network services like Nat, it is also getting a lot of interest on the part of web-scale customers as well as service provider customers that are in the hosting environment or that require multi-tenancy with this level of security. So we are seeing traction across these various vertical segments of the marketplace. But, I firmly believe that security in this new age of digitization has got to play a role as a first-class citizen which is the fundamental thing that we offer day one out-of-the-box.
What is AMD Pensando’s strategy to support the partner ecosystem?
The partner ecosystem is quintessential because no one company can come to the market with the entire stack and have an open platform, whether it’s making this technology available and having it apply on a mass scale to all the cloud vendors out there.
We have a rich ecosystem that we are building, which can take our software development kit. If you’re a cloud customer and start to bring your own business logic through some of the fundamental software that we have already built on this very robust DPU – data processing unit platform, that is one angle of the ecosystem with the ability to coexist, with how the customers and the cloud business are managing their infrastructure.
The other aspect of the ecosystem is possible because we have a system-rich software stack. We are exposing an API at our policy manager level, which allows us to integrate into enterprise customers at existing management environments, whether it’s their SIEM or SOAR tools, their network management and provisioning tools, the policy management tools or integration into XDR or the new age AI/ML based back-end engines that they’re embracing.
This rich ecosystem is really enabling the customers to plug into whatever the existing environments are, to fit within the zero-trust security models in a very comprehensive way. This would not be possible if all we were, were a chip company. If you take a look at our assets, over 300 of Pensando engineers are software developers. That level of investment is only going to increase because our DPUs are completely software programmable. As we develop more software, we are also exposing a lot of the APIs in the standards bodies that would allow the industry to play through a common set of interfaces.
Your outlook on what will be the impact of big data, AI and IoT on the IT industry in the coming year?
It’s going to have a huge impact. Today the Internet is almost like a utility. I cannot do without any Internet connectivity. I think AI and IoT are going to play a big role in how we work, live and play going forward. Even the automotive industry is undergoing digitalization, where when I get in my car, my car is a computer at the end of the day. The other thing I think about AI also is that all the new-age applications that are running in the infrastructure whether it’s in the cloud or whether it’s in the data centers, are going to have a profound impact on how digitization will change our lives for the good. In the case of automation, the work that the machine is doing is compensating for increased productivity at the end of the day, so these applications are going to be very impactful. The new-age applications that are driven by IoT use cases or AI-based implementations are going to play a foundational role over the next few years here as various industries will continue to embrace them in mass.
How do you see the role of the cloud evolving in data centers?
Adoption of cloud will occur at an accelerated pace. At the same time, I think we have to also acknowledge that as these new-age applications come about, you will see the world of hybrids be around for a long time. The data center is not going to completely disappear. The customers will keep their mission-critical workloads on their premises but yet want to build a perimeter-less data center, one which is highly secure. The perimeter-less data center will have all ingress and egress elements; fully protected, fully encrypted, and the ability for AI and machine learning-based security tools will further reinforce policies in real-time.
I think you’re going to see a mixture of private, hybrid and multiple public cloud environments to be the wave of the future, including the way I deal with my SaaS platforms and my infrastructure as a service cloud vendors. The same holds true for 5G and 6G based buildouts. It’s not just going to be for the traditional vendors to play in these markets. The public cloud vendors are also doing massive build-outs to enable the support of 5G and some of these other evolving IoT based technologies as part of their offerings.
What are some technology trends that will transform data centers in 2023 – like 5G, cchip-levelsecurity, and green data centers?
I think that you’re going to see more awareness and appreciation for new-age applications like AI, ML, and high-performance computing all coming together with your traditional workloads that are running today in the data centers and in the cloud. As the build-out starts by the cloud vendors with a two to three-year horizon in front of them, you will see that they would want to build a converged fabric that is going to connect these various existing applications and the new Age applications on that converged fabric. Whether that fabric is being built by a cloud vendor or whether that fabric is being built on-premise by the enterprise customers.
I foresee a disaggregation of software-defined networking at the edges as well as the disaggregation of storage. So the systems will be evenly distributed at the infrastructure layer, and there’s expectation that there will be ubiquitous connectivity, which has security on a flow-by-flow basis. I think a lot of these trends at the heart of a lot of these technology transitions is the data processing unit because it will become more prevalent in the build-outs of some of the largest clouds going forward.
Co-Founder of Pensando and CVP,
Business Management at AMD Pensando
By Minu Sirsalewala