Irene Y. Zhang

The Fall of Datacenter Software

The research community has long predicted the death of Moore’s law and attendant growth in datacenter hardware speeds. In a few years, datacenter networks will grow an order of magnitude from 40Gb to 400Gb. Systems researchers, including myself, have been preparing for this new world for almost a decade [1, 2]. Demikernel is the first fully-featured nanosecond-scale OS: 100ns to get a packet from the NIC to the app in Demikernel’s DPDK TCP stack, processing 1 million packets per second per core, etc [3]. We achieve this scale only by rebuilding everything in the OS from scratch and carefully engineering for cycle counts at every step.

While we can engineer systems to use the least number of cycles, there will be some lower bound to how far we can take this extreme. Thus, systems builders and datacenter developers must start thinking of the world beyond software and start looking to hardware for solutions. They cannot continue focusing on software running on general-purpose CPUs but must re-orient themselves towards specialized hardware. Due to its scale, any datacenter workload can be considered general-purpose and deserving of its own hardware. We already have hardware for our most compute-intensive tasks (e.g., ML) but hardware offload for all is the only way forward.

Demikernel and Kernel-bypass For All

Kernel-bypass is the classic example of offloading a common workload to hardware. Every I/O operation goes through the OS kernel, therefore kernel-bypass I/O hardware reduces CPU usage by offloading the OS features needed to safely let applications perform I/O from user-space. While kernel-bypass has been around for a long time, it has never been as urgently needed as now. Unfortunately, as a research community, we’ve put very little thought into how to make kernel-bypass actually usable for most applications. RDMA, DPDK and previous hardware were all largely designed for specialized, high-performance applications, making them difficult to use and deploy. With Demikernel, our aim was to bring the principles of the OS kernel to kernel-bypass – including high-level APIs and portability – thus making kernel-bypass accessible to all datacenter applications and developers.

What’s next? Hardware Offload for Datacenter OSes

Demikernel is a software solution to a hardware problem: kernel-bypass hardware is difficult to use, so we use software to raise the level of abstraction to where applications can leverage the hardware – all while minimizing CPU cycles. While this solution works, it does not address the more general problem which is: what should a hardware OS kernel look like?

Fortunately, the path of software design to hardware support is a well-trodden one: we had software MMUs before hardware ones and software virtualization before hardware virtualization. Software gives systems designers the ability to flexibly design abstractions and architectures until they are satisfied enough to bake it into hardware. Here are some open research questions that need to be explored before we get to a hardware Demikernel OS:

  • Networking: What protocol should we support in the datacenter? RDMA and TCP are not the answers but there has been research on better alternatives, like Homa. We likely need different protocols for datacenter internal and external workloads.

  • Storage: Will local disks still be relevant and useful? Will all storage be network-connected, if so, how will it be managed? Will we care about persistence?

  • Scheduling: How do we mediate between application demands on the CPU, memory and I/O bandwidth in hardware? Existing hardware resource isolation is primitive and there are no hardware mechanisms for scheduling CPU cycles (interrupts are too clunky) or memory (likewise for page faults).

  • Security and isolation: Existing hardware isolation mechanisms – page tables, processes – are far too coarse-grained to be useful. Demikernel uses fine-grained co-routines for context switches but it’s not clear that is the right hardware solution (and we might have to go back to segments for memory isolation).

Hardware Offload for All

The datacenter operating system is simply a starting point for hardware offload of common workloads. For example, we’ve written recently about how to achieve zero-copy serialization using existing hardware features [4], but the hardware could be much better designed for serialization and deserialization. From there, it is simply a matter of going up the stack to JSON parsing, the REST API and other common frameworks for datacenter workloads. Eventually, the CPU may only serve to direct and schedule offload devices or become an unnecessary vestige of an earlier time in datacenter history. For resource management and scheduling, datacenters will still need to dynamically shift hardware to serving workloads but that could be done with programmable hardware and/or minimal CPU usage. When every datacenter workload runs on thousands of machines, using a general-purpose processing unit to run the workload in software just no longer makes sense. Obviously, we are far away from such a hardware-oriented world, but it certainly poses many interesting new research problems.


  1. Peter, Simon, Jialin Li, Irene Zhang, Dan RK Ports, Doug Woos, Arvind Krishnamurthy, Thomas Anderson, and Timothy Roscoe. “Arrakis: The Operating System is the Control Plane.” ACM Transactions on Computer Systems (TOCS). Nov 2015.

  2. Belay, Adam, George Prekas, Ana Klimovic, Samuel Grossman, Christos Kozyrakis, and Edouard Bugnion. “IX: A Protected Dataplane Operating System for High Throughput and Low Latency.” In Proceedings of the 11th USENIX Symposium on Operating Systems Design and Implementation (OSDI 14). Oct 2014.

  3. Zhang, Irene, Amanda Raybuck, Pratyush Patel, Kirk Olynyk, Jacob Nelson, Omar S. Navarro Leija, Ashlie Martinez et al. “The Demikernel Datapath OS Architecture for Microsecond-scale Datacenter Systems.” In Proceedings of the ACM SIGOPS 28th Symposium on Operating Systems Principles. Oct 2021.

  4. Raghavan, Deepti, Philip Levis, Matei Zaharia, and Irene Zhang. “Breakfast of Champions: Towards Zero-Copy Serialization with NIC Scatter-gather.” In Proceedings of the Workshop on Hot Topics in Operating Systems. June 2021.