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What Is a DPU? Explaining the Difference Between a DPU, CPU, and GPU
Published: 09-08-2023

(Image Credit: Manuel Geissinger)

You're probably already familiar with CPUs and GPUs, but have you heard of DPUs? Let's dive into what makes this new piece of technology unique.

Introduction to the DPU: A New Element in Computing

CPUs, or Central Processing Units, have been the cornerstone of computing for many years. They are responsible for handling general-purpose computing tasks and have been the sole programmable element in most computers.

More recently, GPUs or Graphics Processing Units have come to the fore. Initially designed to manage real-time graphics, they quickly became indispensable for parallel processing tasks, particularly in fields like artificial intelligence and big data. Thanks to General-purpose GPU design (GPGPU) these processors are now nearly as programmable as traditional CPUs.

Now, enter the DPU, or Data Processing Unit, which has emerged as the third pillar in the realm of high-performance computing. Specialized in moving data in data centers, DPUs are going to play an integral role in the future of technology.

What Exactly Is a DPU?

A DPU is a system on a chip (SoC) that integrates three key elements:

  1. Multi-core CPU: An industry-standard, high-performance, software-programmable, multi-core CPU, typically based on the widely used Arm architecture.

  2. High-Performance Network Interface: This ensures efficient data transfer at the network's speed to GPUs and CPUs.

  3. Programmable Acceleration Engines: These boost performance for applications like AI and machine learning, zero-trust security, telecommunications, and storage.

These DPU capabilities are central to creating an isolated, cloud-native computing platform defining the next generation of computing.

The Unique Role of a DPU

( A DPU SmartNIC. Image Credit: NVIDIA)

A DPU can function as a stand-alone embedded processor or be incorporated into a SmartNIC, a network interface controller utilized in next-generation servers. This adaptability makes the DPU versatile and crucial in modern data centers.

DPU vs. CPU vs. GPU: The Differences

Understanding the DPU also requires looking at how it stands apart from CPUs and GPUs:

  • CPU: The CPU is for general-purpose computing and serves as the computer's brain, managing and executing instructions from the computer's hardware and software.

  • GPU: The GPU specializes in accelerated computing and has taken a central role in fields requiring parallel processing capabilities.

  • DPU: The DPU, focused on moving and processing data within the data center, is a new class of processors that combines elements of both CPU and GPU while adding unique functionalities like network data path processing and acceleration engines.

It's clear that when you add DPUs to the mix to solve the issue of getting data where it needs to go when it needs to be there, the sky becomes the limit when it comes to complex computational jobs.

Final Thoughts on the DPU

The introduction of the DPU into the computing landscape represents a significant step in technology's continual evolution. While some vendors might claim to have DPUs, understanding what constitutes a real DPU helps differentiate it from mere imitations.

Many so-called DPUs focus on just one or two of these functions, but genuine DPUs integrate these elements comprehensively. The DPU's emphasis on data processing, rather than brute force performance, sets it apart and aligns it more effectively with the demands of modern computing.