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NICA is a framework for building application-layer inline accelerators for FPGA-based SmartNICs and using them from server applications. This is a research prototype; use it at your own risk. It is free to use as a whole or in parts. Please cite our ATC'19 paper "NICA: An Infrastructure for Inline Acceleration of Network Applications".

@inproceedings {234884,
author = {Haggai Eran and Lior Zeno and Maroun Tork and Gabi Malka and Mark Silberstein},
title = {{NICA}: An Infrastructure for Inline Acceleration of Network Applications},
booktitle = {2019 {USENIX} Annual Technical Conference ({USENIX} {ATC} 19)},
year = {2019},
address = {Renton, WA},
url = {},
publisher = {{USENIX} Association},

What's in here?

  • nica/ - NICA hardware runtime for the FPGA.
  • ikernels/ - Implementation of several example AFUs.
  • manager/ - NICA manager daemon implementation.
  • libnica/ - Application facing library to control NICA AFUs.
  • scripts/, cmake/ - Scripts for building and running NICA.
  • emulation/ - Wraps NICA and AFU implementation in a library for host emulation.
  • ntl/ - Networking Template Library, included as a git submodule.
  • ansible/ - Ansible scripts to set up NICA dependencies.

What's not here?

  • RTL testbench for NICA - our testbench is based on modified testbench from Mellanox Innova SDK that we cannot publish.

In addition, some code currently belongs to other repositories:

  • Modified memcached to use NICA-KVcache AFU.
  • Baseline and modified CoAP server for the authentication AFU.
  • Modified sockperf tool used for performance measurements.


NICA's runtime and compile-time dependencies can be installed using an ansible role provided in the ansible/ directory. To use them, first get the ansible mlnx ofed submodule updated using the command:

git submodule update --init

You can then use the example ansible playbook with the following command:

    ansible-playbook -i <inventory file> [-l <hostname>] ansible/nica.yml

Building HLS code


NICA currently builds with Vivado HLS 2018.2.

The tests rely on googletest. Download and build it:

cd ~/workspace
git clone --branch v1.8.x
cd googletest
make -j

The tests also depend on scapy (python36-scapy on CentOS) to generate pcap files.

To get the ntl submodule updated use the command:

git submodule update --init

Some of the ikernels rely on additional libraries, such as openssl-devel (CoAP).

Assuming this repository is at ~/workspace/nica, configure it by:

cd ~/workspace/nica
mkdir build
cd build
cmake -DGTEST_ROOT=~/workspace/googletest/googletest -DNUM_IKERNELS=1 -DBUILD_SOFTWARE=OFF ..

Number of ikernels to build can be changed by changing NUM_IKERNELS to a different value. BUILD_SOFTWARE is set to OFF in order to build just the HLS code (NICA and example ikernels) without the host applications.

After configuration, it is possible to run the C simulation for all ikernels by running the check target:

make check

It is also possible to build NICA building the nica target, and run an RTL/C co-simulation for that project by building the nica-sim target. Other ikernel targets are listed below.

ikernel target RTL/C co-simulation
Passthrough passthrough-hls passthrough-sim
Threshold threshold-hls threshold-sim
pktgen pktgen-hls pktgen-sim
echo echo-hls echo-sim
Top-K cms-hls cms-sim
memcached memcached-hls memcached-sim
coap coap-hls coap-sim

Building host software

This repository can be configured to build the software as well:

cd ~/workspace/nica/build
cmake -DGTEST_ROOT=~/workspace/googletest/googletest -DNUM_IKERNELS=1 -DBUILD_SOFTWARE=ON ..
make -j

Generating an FPGA image

To run the synthesis and implementation process, you first need to acquire the Mellanox shell SDK tarball. NICA currently builds against image 2768 (newton_ku060_40g_v2768.tar), with Vivado 2018.2. Use the script to extract the necessary files and prepare the build directory:

cd ~/workspace/nica/build
../scripts/ newton_ku060_40g_v2768.tar

After that the create_project.tcl script from the SDK can be used to generate an image. The script requires environment variables specifying the number of ikernels, the chosen ikernel, and the build number. For example, to build an image with the threshold ikernel:

cd ~/workspace/nica/build/user/project
IKERNEL0=threshold \
vivado -mode batch -source create_project.tcl -tclargs xcku060-ffva1156-2-i flat

Check the WNS (worst negative slack) in the timing report under the reports directory to verify that the resulting image meets the timing constraints.

To flash the image on the Innova device, the gen_flash.tcl script converts it to the format needed by the mlx_fpga tool, generating the top.bin file:

cd Implement/Impl_flat_sbu
vivado -mode batch -source ../../../scripts/mellanox/gen_flash.tcl

Adding a new ikernel

Sources for example ikernels are availabe under the ikernels/ directory. For example, take ikernels/hls/passthrough.cpp. In order to add a new ikernel, create a class derived from the hls_ik::ikernel class. Define a UUID for the new ikernel using the uuidgen tool, and Use the DEFINE_TOP_FUNCTION macro to define the HLS top function for the new ikernel.

You may create a testbench for the ikernel. The example ikernels/hls/tests/threshold_tests.cpp shows a couple of tests for the threshold ikernel, implemented using googletest.

To build the ikernel, add a new add_ikernel() call to the ikernels/CMakeLists.txt file with the source files. The function parameters are documented in comments in the CMakeLists.txt file.


An infrastructure for inline acceleration of network applications







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