Open vSwitch in NVIDIA BlueField SmartNIC

Jan 17, 2022

In embedded CPU (ECPF: Embedded CPU Physical Function) mode of NVIDIA BlueField DPU, Open vSwitch (OvS) is used for packet processing. Once BlueField Linux is installed, several frameworks are installed together as well, and OvS is one of them.

# in SmartNIC Linux
$ systemctl status openvswitch-switch
● openvswitch-switch.service - LSB: Open vSwitch switch
     Loaded: loaded (/etc/init.d/openvswitch-switch; generated)
     Active: active (running) since Sun 2022-01-16 18:17:46 UTC; 1 day 2h ago
       Docs: man:systemd-sysv-generator(8)
    Process: 227259 ExecStart=/etc/init.d/openvswitch-switch start (code=exited, status=0/SUCCESS)
      Tasks: 13 (limit: 19074)
     Memory: 111.5M
     CGroup: /system.slice/openvswitch-switch.service
             ├─227323 ovsdb-server: monitoring pid 227324 (healthy)
             ├─227324 ovsdb-server /etc/openvswitch/conf.db -vconsole:emer -vsyslog:err -vfile:info ...
             ├─227341 ovs-vswitchd: monitoring pid 227342 (healthy)
             └─227342 ovs-vswitchd unix:/var/run/openvswitch/db.sock -vconsole:emer -vsyslog:err ...

If SmartNIC is running in separated host mode, SmartNIC HW will automatically forward packets to the host and the SmartNIC, while in embedded mode, all packets first are handled by SmartNIC. Open vSwitch is running for this purpose: forwarding packets to the host.


BlueField2 kernel representors model. The red arrow demonstrates a packet flow through the representors, while the green arrow demonstrates the packet flow wheen steering rules are offloaded to the embedded switch (E-switch). [Source]

Is OvS Really Used in Host Packet Processing?

Tutorial referenced: NVIDIA Mellanox Bluefield-2 SmartNIC Hands-On Tutorial Part VII/A: To Offload or Not To Offload? 1

To prove this, we could use OvS user-space tools. Here I setup two machines connected to each other via BlueField2 DPUs:


IP setup of BlueField2 machines. I am trying to check whether OvS is involved in pinging from host2 to host1. I will check whether packets are forwarded through the red line.

With default configuration, ping works:

# in BF-host1
bf-host1 $ ovs-vsctl show
    Bridge ovsbr1
        Port pf0hpf             # connected to host ens5f0
            Interface pf0hpf
        Port en3f0pf0sf0        # this is for SmartNIC ubuntu network
            Interface en3f0pf0sf0
        Port ovsbr1             # Open vSwitch bridge
            Interface ovsbr1
                type: internal
        Port p0                 # physical port
            Interface p0
    ovs_version: "2.14.1"

bf-host1 $ ovs-ofctl dump-flows ovsbr1
 cookie=0x0, duration=1.879s, table=0, n_packets=2, n_bytes=120, priority=0 actions=NORMAL

# in host2
host2 $ ping -c 5
PING ( 56(84) bytes of data.
64 bytes from icmp_seq=1 ttl=64 time=0.702 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=2 ttl=64 time=0.343 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=3 ttl=64 time=0.359 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=4 ttl=64 time=0.408 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=5 ttl=64 time=0.175 ms

But if we delete a default flow configuration, ping does not work:

# in BF-host1
bf-host1 $ over-ofctl del-flows ovsbr1
bf-host1 $ over-ofctl dump-flows ovsbr1
# nothing

# in host2
host2 $ ping -c 5
PING ( 56(84) bytes of data.

--- ping statistics ---
5 packets transmitted, 0 received, 100% packet loss, time 4076ms

After manually inserting OvS flow rules, it works again:

# in BF-host1
bf-host1 $ ovs-ofctl add-flow ovsbr1 ip,in_port=pf0hpf,actions=output:p0
bf-host1 $ ovs-ofctl add-flow ovsbr1 ip,in_port=p0,ip_dst=,actions=output:pf0hpf
bf-host1 $ ovs-ofctl add-flow ovsbr1 arp,actions=FLOOD

# in host2
host2 $ ping -c 5
PING ( 56(84) bytes of data.
64 bytes from icmp_seq=1 ttl=64 time=0.522 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=2 ttl=64 time=0.212 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=3 ttl=64 time=0.166 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=4 ttl=64 time=0.150 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=5 ttl=64 time=0.142 ms

# in BF-host1
bf-host1 $ ovs-ofctl dump-flows ovsbr1
 cookie=0x0, duration=67.595s, table=0, n_packets=5, n_bytes=490, ip,in_port=p0,nw_dst= actions=output:pf0hpf
 cookie=0x0, duration=65.799s, table=0, n_packets=5, n_bytes=490, ip,in_port=pf0hpf actions=output:p0
 cookie=0x0, duration=64.320s, table=0, n_packets=2, n_bytes=112, arp actions=FLOOD

Packets are captured by OvS (n_packets=5) in the flow dump result.

Explaining OvS Rules

In setting OvS rules I used pf0hpf and p0 ports. NVIDIA DOCK SDK explains how these ports are connected to each other.

By default, Mellanox OFED installs the following ports:

bf-host1 $ ovs-vsctl show
    Bridge ovsbr1
        Port pf0hpf
            Interface pf0hpf
        Port en3f0pf0sf0
            Interface en3f0pf0sf0
        Port ovsbr1
            Interface ovsbr1
                type: internal
        Port p0
            Interface p0
    ovs_version: "2.14.1"

NVIDIA BlueField2 default representor model. It is slightly different from what is described in DOCA SDK manual. [Manual ref]

add-flow ovsbr1 ip,in_port=pf0hpf,actions=output:p0

This rule indicates the red line in the figure. When a packet comes from the port pf0hpf (hpf stands for host physical function), which is connected to the host interface (meaning outbound packet from the host), OvS should forward it to the physical port so that it can reach out to the destination (actions=output:p0). p0 is an actual physical port in DPU, connected to the network outside.

add-flow ovsbr1 ip,in_port=p0,ip_dst=,actions=output:pf0hpf

This rule indicates the blue line in the figure, representing handling incoming packets. Note that an SF en3f0pf0sf0 can also have an IP and can be used by applications in ARM CPU, not all packets should be forward to the host. In this example, the host has IP, so only packets with destination IP (ip_dst= should be forwarded to pf0hpf port, which is connected to the host.

BlueField OvS Data Plane HW Offloading

OvS datapath can be offloaded to the hardware for acceleration in NVIDIA BlueField2 DPU. It seems to have two hardware accelerators: tc-flower and ASAP2.

Kernel-OVS, OVS-TC, and tc-flower 2

Note that the reference is for Netronome Agilio SmartNICs, but I think it can also be applied to NVIDIA BlueField SmartNICs. Not sure it is a general feature for every SmartNICs.

Traffic Control (TC) flower is not a hardware, actually. It is a packet classifier in the Linux kernel, and part of the kernel traffic classification system. This TC datapath can be offloaded into SmartNIC, which provides a huge performance boost in virtual switch packet processing.


Blue boxes in Kernel area are offloaded into the yellow Agilio CX SmartNIC hardware. [Source]

It seems NVIDIA BlueField2 also provides TC offload hardware acceleration. I followed the tutorial to test SmartNIC offloading.

To check whether HW offloading is enabled, use the following command in the BF2:

$ ovs-vsctl get Open_vSwitch . other_config:hw-offload

To change configuration, set value and restart OvS switch daemon:

$ ovs-vsctl set Open_vSwitch . other_config:hw-offload=true
$ systemctl restart openvswitch-switch

Note that when restart switch daemon, existing rules are removed. Reset the rules.

To check whether HW offloading is actually used, use ovs-appctl tool while hosts are communicating:

$ ovs-appctl dpctl/dump-flows -m | grep pf0hpf
ufid:e81cbd1d-0120-4ef7-af70-f7a8cdf9ffc2, skb_priority(0/0),skb_mark(0/0),ct_state(0/0),ct_zone(0/0),ct_
0/,dst=,proto=0/0,tos=0/0,ttl=0/0,frag=no), packets:174, bytes:17052, used:0.520s,
offloaded:yes, dp:tc, actions:p0

ufid:09bfe098-3319-4fcf-a2eb-be80636ed34e, skb_priority(0/0),skb_mark(0/0),ct_state(0/0),ct_zone(0/0),ct_
0.0.0,dst=,proto=0/0,tos=0/0,ttl=0/0,frag=no), packets:175, bytes:17812, used:0.520s, offloaded:
yes, dp:tc, actions:pf0hpf

ufid:29e9b8b3-97a5-425e-a602-25f5765bf855, skb_priority(0/0),skb_mark(0/0),ct_state(0/0),ct_zone(0/0),ct_
0:00:00:00), packets:1, bytes:38, used:5.820s, dp:tc, actions:p0,ovsbr1,en3f0pf0sf0

Three flows, each of which corresponds to each OvS rule, have been captured by dump-flows.

First flow represents outbound packets (in_port(pf0hpf), actions:p0), second inbound packets (in_port(p0), actions:pf0hpf), and third is arp (eth_type: 0x0806, flooded to all connected ports: p0,ovsbr1,en3f0pf0sf0). Note that, you can see offloaded:yes, dp:tc in the first and second flow, which means BlueField embedded switch (Eswitch) partially processed traffic control (TC).

Refer to the presentation from Mellanox 3 to see what “partially process” means, and how Eswitch handles offloading.

If you set hw-offload off, you can see the following flows, which don’t have offloaded field:

ufid:240da61d-5cea-4161-9f60-783915bb1a1c, recirc_id(0),dp_hash(0/0),skb_priority(0/0),in_port(pf0hpf),sk
.0,proto=0/0,tos=0/0,ttl=0/0,frag=no), packets:18, bytes:1764, used:0.208s, dp:ovs, actions:p0

ufid:a5ff341c-7180-4be2-af6e-2792c4275e70, recirc_id(0),dp_hash(0/0),skb_priority(0/0),in_port(p0),skb_ma
/0,tos=0/0,ttl=0/0,frag=no), packets:18, bytes:1764, used:0.208s, dp:ovs, actions:pf0hpf

Offload Performance Measurement

I tried to measure network performance by running simple data echo programs (16B~16MiB). This could quite be inaccurate, better to use iperf, etc. But I wanted to know difference in latency between host-to-host communication and the host-to-SmartNIC communication. Below figure is a configuration.

Note that the following rules should be added to forward packets to a process running in SmartNIC:

# should be the port that is connected to ovs-system, not the one with IP assigned.
$ ovs-ofctl add-flow ovsbr1 ip,in_port=p0,ip_dst=<smartnic_ip>,actions=output:en3f0pf0sf0
$ ovs-ofctl add-flow ovsbr1 ip,in_port=en3f0pf0sf0,actions=output:p0

Nodes configureation. Echo client sends a bunch of data (16B~16MiB), and servers echo received data. All process uses a single thread. Elapsed time (from before sending data to after receiving data) is measured from the client side, so it is round-trip time. All data are verified to be the same in the client. I used Rust std::tcp for data transfer.


Echo test result. All data is an average of 50 experiments.

We can see two expected behaviors from the result:

  1. Communication with the echo server in SmartNIC shows lower latency. This is probably because SmartNIC CPU is much closer than the host CPU to the client, reducing PCIe round trip time in Host 1.
  2. Using TC-offload provides performance benefit.

while two unexpected outcomes are shown in the result:

  1. Non-offloaded (SW only) OvS performance is not that bad. The tutorial says there was 88% performance degradation, which is not my case. Not sure what was different. Also, ARM CPUs are still not heavily used during packet processing if I glimpsed.
  2. SmartNIC performs worse with larger data size (e.g. 25ms in host vs 43ms in BF2 for 4MB TCP echo). I suspect this is because of low performance SmartNIC cores; Linux TCP packet processing performance with BF2 cores is probably the reason?



  1. NVIDIA Mellanox Bluefield-2 SmartNIC Hands-On Tutorial Part VII/A: To Offload or Not To Offload? ↩︎

  2. White Paper: Virtual Switch Acceleration with OVS-TC ↩︎

  3. Hardware Offload: Past, Present, and Future ↩︎

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