Category Archives: Future Internet

Network Mechanics to Network Conductors

I get a general sense that the latest incarnation of network evolution (i.e. SDN) is becoming a way of expressing the frustration with dealing with a complex set of problems, which have yet to be solved. One of the things you have to ask yourself, as a network professional is “What do I really understand about the fundamentals of networking and how do I put that to use in the post-PC data hungry world?”

For years the best way to understand networking was to lug out your Network General Sniffer and watch the interaction of messages flowing across the screen. We had basic signals such as connection management; we had a general understanding of the traffic matrix by interrogating the network addresses, which we compared to our spreadsheets and some heuristics about flows. We leveraged the emerging SNMP standard to first collect traffic statistics into our pre-RRD datastores and presented pretty graphs of utilization to understand demand. Soon we had some expert systems, which would track the various protocol state transpiring between hosts and interpreting the results.

Scaling the data center meant learning about aggregation/distribution, the ratio of local traffic from remote. At the time most network engineers were taught the 80/20 rule i.e. 80% of the traffic stays local and only 20% is remote. This was a direct play on our centralized compute models, mainframes and the fact that most people were still using terminal based computing and sneakernet. It became the foundation of network design, which reflected this by oversubscribing capacity higher in the tree (i.e. Core, Distribution, Edge design).

Network automation was still in its infancy; you would use a floppy disk to update the firmware and operating system. Upgrading a Cisco router meant getting your terminal configured with the appropriate Xmodem/Zmodem settings and waiting hours while your data was serialized down a modem from the Cisco CCO BBS site.

Soon we were leveraging scripting languages like Expect and Perl to handle the complexity of managing network state across all the configuration files. Once you could use the SNMP private MIB to read and write a device configuration you could make global changes in an instant and repopulate the configurations across the world. In some ways this was all a step backwards from the advancing telecommunications control system present in the day, it was still a very closed and proprietary world leaving customers no choice but to adopt some complex and monolithic management applications.

So its 2012 and we are not much better at dealing with all of the challenges in running such a complex system as the network. IETF finally got its act together and delivered a more robust management framework through an application protocol called NetConf and an information modeling definition called YANG. Finally you can divorce the information model from the data transfer protocol and allow for a cleaner representation of the network configuration. But is this as far as we need to go? Why is SDN so interesting and what is it telling us about the still very complex problems with building, and operating networks?

As the title of the blog suggests, I think something can be said for the expertise required to manage complex systems. Question becomes, are you going to stay being a mechanic and worrying about some low-level details or are you going to be the pilot? Is it valuable to your employer for you to understand the low-level semantics of a specific implementation or rise above by creating proper interfaces to manipulate the state of the network through a reusable interface?

With information becoming more valuable than most commodities it will take a shift in mindset to move from low-level addressing concerns to traffic analysis, modeling and control. Understanding where the most important data is, how to connect to it and avoid interference will become much more important than understanding protocols.

So how does SDN contribute to this and how do we get from the complex set of tasks of setting up and operating networks to more of a fly-by-wire approach? How do we go from managing a huge set of dials and instruments to managing resources like a symphony?

The first thing to recognize is you can’t solve this problem in the network by itself!!. For years application developer’s expectations of the network were of infinite capacity and zero latency. They perceived that the flow-control capability in the network would suffice giving them ample room to pummel the network with data. Locality was far behind even an after-thought because they were developing on local machines unaware of the impact of crossing network boundaries. Networking guys use terms like latency, jitter, bandwidth, over-subscription, congestion, broadcast storms, flooding while application developer’s talk in terms of consistency, user experience, accuracy and availability.

The second thing to recognize is the network might need to be stripped down and built back up from scratch in order to further deal with its scaling challenges. In my eyes this is the clearest benefit to SDN as it highlights some of the major challenges in building and running networks. Experimenting with a complex system is disastrous; in order to break new ground it must be decomposed into its simplest form but certainly no simpler as Einstein would say. Its possible that OpenFlow has gone this route and must be redesigned into a workable set of primitive functions which can be leveraged not just through a centralized controller model but also to adapt new Operating Systems and protocols to leverage the hardware.

There is much debate over what the “best” model is here and what the objectives are. Since most networking is basically a “craft” and not a science there are those who strive to maintain the existing methodologies and mechanisms and simply open up a generalized interface to improve control. Others might see this as a mistake as if you reproduce the current broken layering model you are bound to run into a new set of challenges down the line which may require another patch, protocol or fix to solve.

Maybe an approach of looking back at the fundamentals of networking, what has been learned through the course of history, how other protocols behave and a reflective look at our industry would be valuable. How do you deal properly with connection management, data transfer efficiency, flow control? How do you leverage proper encapsulations and hierarchy to scale efficiently? What should management look like and how do you separate mechanism from policy and deliver hop-by-hop QOS?


In some regards the move towards Software Defined Network is an outcry of the frustration in managing an ever, complex set of interrelated components. Data centers have become huge information factories; servers themselves have become cluster of computers and our data hungry applications require massive amounts of parallel computing driving even more demand into the network. We could continue to take a ill-suited feature-driven approach to networking or we could take the opportunity to recognize what are the architectural principals to networking which would turn it from a craft to a science (not withstanding the argument on true science).

Networking doesn’t need VMWARE but it does need better abstractions

Lately there has been a lot of talk around the network and the corresponding conflation of terms and hyperbole around “Network Virtualization including Nypervisor, Software Defined Networking, Network Abstraction Layer, SDN, OpenFlow, etc.

Recently a blog entry entitled “Networking Needs a VMWare (Part 1: Address Virtualization)” appeared on Martin Casado’s blog which tries to make a case for comparing the memory virtualization capability in today’s modern hypervisors to network virtualization.

This sort of left an uneasy feeling in fully describing why we are seeing this activity in the network domain specifically to deal with the broken address architecture. This post is to try and bring some clarity to this and to maybe dig deeper into the root causes or problems in networking which have led us to this point.

The synopsis in the blog goes like:

One of the key strengths of a hypervisor lies in its insertion of a completely new address space below the guest OS’s view of what it believes to be the physical address space. And while there are several possible ways to interpose on network address space to achieve some form of virtualization, encapsulation provides the closest analog to the hierarchical memory virtualization used in compute. It does so by taking advantage of the hierarchy inherent in the physical topology, and allowing both the virtual and physical address spaces to support complete forwarding and addressing models. However, like memory virtualization’s page table, encapsulation requires maintenance of the address mappings (rules to tunnel mappings). The interface for doing so should be open, and a good candidate for that interface is OpenFlow.

The author of the blog post is trying to describe a well-known aphorism by David Wheeler, which states: “All problems in computer science can be solved by another level of indirection”. This statement is at the heart of “virtualization” as well as other references in communications layering, computer architecture and programming models.

Sidebar OSI Model

Lots of networking professionals like to refer to the 7-layer OSI model when talking about network abstractions. The problem is the OSI model was never adopted; in addition most OSI engineers agree that the top 3-layers of the OSI (Application, Presentation and Session) belongs in “one” application layer. We utilize a derivative of that model which is essentially the four-layers representative in the TCP/IP model.

Lets first try and define what an address is and then what is meant by encapsulation being careful not to conflate these two important yet independent terms.

Addressing and Naming

The first thing to recognize is that the Internet is comprised of two name spaces, what we call the Domain Name System and the Internet Address Space. These turn out to be just synonyms for each other in the context of addressing with different scope. Generally we can describe an address space as consisting of a name space with a set of identifiers within a given scope.

An address-space in a modern computer system is location-dependent but hardware-independent thanks to the virtual memory manager and “memory virtualization”. The objective of course is to present a logical address space which is larger than the physical memory space in order to give the illusion to each process that it owns the entire physical address space. This is a very important indirection mechanism, if we didn’t have this, applications would have to share a much smaller set of available memory. Does anyone remember DOS?

“Another problem with TCP/IP is that the real name of an application is not the text form that humans type; it’s an IP address and its well-known port number. As if an application name were a macro for a jump point through a well-known low memory address. – Professor John Day”

Binding a service, which needs to be re-locatable to a location-dependent address, is why we have such problems with mobility today (in fact we may even conclude that we are missing a layer).  Given the size and failure rates of today’s modern data-centers this problem also impacts the reliability of the services and applications consumers are so dependent on in todays web-scale companies.

So while this is a very important part of OS design, its completely different from how the Internet works because the address system we use today has no such indirection without breaking the architecture (i.e. NATS, Load Balancers, etc).

If this is true, is the IP address system currently used on the Internet “location-dependent”?  Well actually IP addresses were distributed as a “location-independent” name, not an address.  There are current attempts to correct this such as LISP, HIP as well as “BeyondIP” solutions such as RINA.

 So it turns out the root of the problem in relation to addressing is that we don’t have the right level of indirection because according to Saltzer and Day, we need a “location-independent” name to identify the application or service but all we have is a location-dependent address which is just a symbolic name!.

What is encapsulation?

Object Oriented Programming refers to encapsulation as a pattern by which [“the object’s data is contained and hidden in the object and access to it restricted to members of that class”]. In networking we use encapsulation to define the different layers of the protocol stack, which, as we know “hides” the data from members not in the Layer, in this way the protocol model forms the “hour-glass” shape minimizing the interface and encapsulating the implementation.

Sidebar Leaky Abstractions

Of course this isn’t completely true as the current protocol model of TCP/IP is subject to a “leaky-abstraction”. For instance there is no reason for the TCP logic to dive into the IP frame to read the TOS data structure, doing so would be a “Layer Violation” but we know that TCP reaches into IP to compute the pseudo header checksum. This rule can be dismissed if we think of TCP/IP as actually one layer as it was before 1978. But the reality of the broken address architecture leads to the “middle boxes” which must violate the layers in order to rewrite the appropriate structures to stitch back together the connection.

So how does encapsulation help?

In networking we use encapsulations all the time..

 We essentially encapsulate the data structures which need to be isolated (the invariants) with some other tag, header, etc. in order to hide the implementation. So in 802.1Q we use the C-TAG to denote a broadcast domain or VLAN, in VXLAN we encapsulate the host within a completely new IP shell in order to “bridge” it across without leaking the protocol primitives necessary for the host stack to process within a hypervisors stack.

From the blog.. “encapsulation provides the closest analog to the hierarchical memory virtualization in compute”

So in the context of a “hierarchy” yes we encapsulate to hide but not for the same reasons we have memory hierarchies (i.e. SRAM(cache) and DRAM). This generalization is where the blog post goes south.

So really what is the root of the problem and how is SDN an approach to solve it?

From an earlier statement we need a “location-independent” name to identify the application or service but all we have is a location-dependent address which is just a symbolic name!. If we go back to Saltzer we see that’s only part of the problem as we need a few more address/names and the binding services to accomplish that.

 One interesting example to this is the implementation of Serval from Mike Freedman at Princeton University. Serval actually breaks the binding between the application/service name and the inter-networking address..(Although there are deeper problems then this since we seem to be missing a network layer somewhere). Serval accomplishes this through the manipulation of forwarding tables via OpenFlow although it can be adapted to use any programmable interface if one exists. Another example is the NDN Project led by Van Jacobson

In summary

Yes it is unfair to conflate “Network Virtualization” with “OS Virtualization” as they deal with a different level of abstraction, state and purpose. Just as hypervisors were invented to “simulate” a hardware platform there is the need to “simulate” or abstract the network in order to build higher-level services and simplify the interface (not necessarily the implementation). In fact a case can be made that “OS Virtualization” may eventually diminish in importance as we find better mechanisms for dealing with isolation and protection of the host stack while network virtualization will extend beyond the existing solutions and even existing protocols allowing us to take on a new set of challenges. This is what makes SDN so important; not the implementation but the interface. Once we have this interface, which is protocol independent, we can start to look at fixing the really hard problems in networking in a large scale way..

NodeFlow: An OpenFlow Controller Node Style

In less you’ve been under a rock lately, you might have heard something about Software Defined Networks, OpenFlow, Network Virtualization and Control Plane/Data Plane separation.

Some of the reasons for the interest might be:

  • Evolution of the system architecture as a whole (Network, NIC, PCIE, QPI, CPU, Memory) along with X86_64 instructions, OS, drivers, software and applications have allowed for many services to run on a single host including network services. Extending the network domain into the host allows for customizable tagging, classification, load balancing and routing, with the utopia being ubiquitous control of logical and physical by a combination if in-protocol state, forwarding tables and a distributed control system.
  • Non-experimental network pathologies, which are causing havoc with large-scale systems. Turns out there are some very “real” problems, which were never part of Ethernet and TCP/IP design space and software allows us to experiment with different ideas on how to solve these problems.
  • Leveraging a possibly untapped design space in order to be differential,  leap frog competition or disrupt the marketplace

So what is OpenFlow? Well according to the Open Networking Foundation:

OpenFlow is an open standard that enables researchers to run experimental protocols in the campus networks we use every day”

This paradigm shift into the guts of the network might be better explained by a surgical assessment of the network core, its protocol structure, the devices, which deal with enrollment, classification, multiplexing/demultiplexing, flow control and routing but this will be a post for another day.

In the meantime the “network” has evolved into a first class citizen amongst infrastructure architects, software developers and consumers alike. No, I am not talking about the Social Network by big boy Zuck, but the fact that networks are finding them selves ingrained in almost anything not nailed down. This so called “Internet of Things” tells us that soon the network will be stitched into our lives through the air and into our clothes.

There are many arguments about the value of OpenFlow and SDN, but to find the benefits and use-cases the network domain experts may find the current toolsets and platforms a bit impenetrable. The current controller implementations are written in a combination of C, Python and Java and because of the “asynchronous” nature of the OF protocol, additional libraries have to be leveraged including Twisted and NIO which make it more difficult to understand exactly what is going on.

To that end I introduce NodeFlow, an OpenFlow controller written in pure JavaScript for Node.JS.  Node.JS provides an asynchronous library over JavaScript for server side programming which is perfect for writing network based applications (ones that don’t require an excessive amount of CPU).

NodeFlow is actually a very simple program and relies heavily on a protocol interpreter called OFLIB-NODE written by Zoltan LaJos Kis. I have a forked version of this library (see below) which have been tested with OpenFlow version 1.0.

Sidebar: A note on OpenFlow

Even though the Open Networking Forum has ratified the 1.2 protocol specification, we have yet to see a reference design which allows developers to experiment. In order to get a grasp of the programming model and data structures to this end I have concentrated on the most common implementation of OpenFlow 1.0. in OpenVSwitch.

Sidebar: Why Node.JS

Node.JS has become one of the most watched repos in GitHub and is headed up by the brilliant guys at Joyent. Anyone interested should check out Bryan Cantrill’s presentation  Building a Real-Time Cloud Analytics Service with Node.js

Setting up the development environment

Leveraging OpenVSwitch and tools such as MiniNet, anyone can create a simulated network environment within their own local machine. Instructions on how to setup the development environment can be seen here Download and Get Started with Mininet

Code review

We first setup the network server with a simple call to net.createServer, which we provide the port and address to listen on. The address and port are configured through a separate start script.

NodeFlowServer.prototype.start = function(address, port) {
var self = this

var socket = []
var server = net.createServer()

server.listen(port, address, function(err, result) {
util.log("NodeFlow Controller listening on " + address + ':' + port)
self.emit('started', { "Config": server.address() })

The next step provides the event listeners for socket maintenance, creates a unique sessionID from which we can keep track of each of the different switch connections and our main event process loop which is called every time we receive data on our socket channel. We use a stream library to buffer the data and return us the OpenFlow decoded message in the msgs object. We make a simple check on the message structure and then pass it on for further processing.

server.on('connection', function(socket) {
    socket.setNoDelay(noDelay = true)
    var sessionID = socket.remoteAddress + ":" + socket.remotePort
    sessions[sessionID] = new sessionKeeper(socket)
    util.log("Connection from : " + sessionID)

socket.on('data', function(data) {
    var msgs = switchStream.process(data);
    msgs.forEach(function(msg) {
    if (msg.hasOwnProperty('message')) {
         self._processMessage(msg, sessionID)
    } else {
         util.log('Error: Message is unparseable')

In the last section we leverage Node.JS EventEmitters to trigger our logic using anonymous callbacks. These event handlers wait for the specific event to happen and then trigger processing. We handle three specific events just for this initial release: ‘OFPT_PACKET_IN which is the main event to listen on for PACKET_IN events, and ‘SENDPACKET’ which simply encodes and sends our OF message on the wire.

self.on('OFPT_PACKET_IN', function(obj) {
 var packet = decode.decodeethernet(, 0)
 nfutils.do_l2_learning(obj, packet)
 self._forward_l2_packet(obj, packet)

 self.on('SENDPACKET', function(obj) {
 nfutils.sendPacket(obj.type, obj.packet.outmessage, obj.packet.sessionID)

The “Hello World” of OpenFlow controllers simply provide a learning bridge function. Here below is the implementation, which is fundamentally a Python port of NOX Pyswitch.

do_l2_learning: function(obj, packet) {
 self = this

var dl_src = packet.shost
 var dl_dst = packet.dhost
 var in_port = obj.message.body.in_port
 var dpid = obj.dpid

if (dl_src == 'ff:ff:ff:ff:ff:ff') {

if (!l2table.hasOwnProperty(dpid)) {
 l2table[dpid] = new Object() //create object
if (l2table[dpid].hasOwnProperty(dl_src)) {
 var dst = l2table[dpid][dl_src]
     if (dst != in_port) {
       util.log("MAC has moved from " + dst + " to " + in_port)
     } else {
} else {
     util.log("learned mac " + dl_src + " port : " + in_port)
     l2table[dpid][dl_src] = in_port
 if (debug) {


Alright, so seriously why the big deal.. There are other implementations which do the same thing, so why is NodeFlow so interesting. Well if we look at setting up a Flow Modification, which is what gets instantiated in the switch-forwarding table, you see we can see every element in JSON notation thanks to the OFLIB-NODE Library. This is very important as deciphering the TLV based protocol from a normative reference can be dizzying at best.

setFlowModPacket: function(obj, packet, in_port, out_port) {

var dl_dst = packet.dhost
var dl_src = packet.shost
var flow = self.extractFlow(packet)

flow.in_port = in_port

return {
 message: {
   version: 0x01,
     header: {
       type: 'OFPT_FLOW_MOD',
       xid: obj.message.header.xid
     body: {
       command: 'OFPFC_ADD',
       hard_timeout: 0,
       idle_timeout: 100,
       priority: 0x8000,
       buffer_id: obj.message.body.buffer_id,
       out_port: 'OFPP_NONE',
       flags: ['OFPFF_SEND_FLOW_REM'],
       match: {
         header: {
         type: 'OFPMT_STANDARD'
         body: {
           'wildcards': 0,
           'in_port': flow.in_port,
           'dl_src': flow.dl_src,
           'dl_dst': flow.dl_dst,
           'dl_vlan': flow.dl_vlan,
           'dl_vlan_pcp': flow.dl_vlan_pcp,
           'dl_type': flow.dl_type,
           'nw_proto': flow.nw_proto,
           'nw_src': flow.nw_src,
           'nw_dst': flow.nw_dst,
           'tp_src': flow.tp_src,
           'tp_dst': flow.tp_dst,
       actions: {
         header: {
           type: 'OFPAT_OUTPUT'
         body: {
           port: out_port


Performance and Benchmarking

So I used Cbench to compare NOX vs. NodeFlow and here are the results.

NOX [./nox_core -i ptcp: pytutorial]

NOX c++ [./nox_core -i ptcp: switch]:

NodeFlow [running with Debug: False]:

C based Controller:

As you can see from the numbers NodeFlow can handle almost 2X what NOX can do and is much more deterministic. Maxing out at 4600 rsp/sec is not shabby on a VirtualBox VM on my Mac Air!


At just under 500 LOC this prototype implementation of an OF controller is orders of magnitude less than comparable systems. Leveraging JavaScript and the high performance V8 engine allows for network architects to experiment with various SDN features without the need to deal with all of the boilerplate code required for setting up event driven programming. Hope someone gets inspired by this and takes a closer look at Node.JS for network programming.

So how do I get NodeFlow?

NodeFlow is an experimental system available at GitHub: git:// along with my fork of the OFLIB-NODE libraries here: git:// If you would like to contribute or have any questions please contact me via Twitter @gbatcisco

Special thanks to Zoltan LaJos Kis for his great OFLIB-NODE library for which this work couldn’t have been done and Matthew Ranney for his network decoder library node-pcap.

Forrester Views Cloud/Web is Outmoded and App-Internet is the new model

LeWeb 2011 George Colony, Forrester Research “Three Social Thunderstorms”

Over the past several years the word ‘Cloud’ has been used and to some extent abused  almost to the point of being superfluous. Every technology company, provider and enterprise is immersed in some sort of “cloud” project although the exact descriptions of these projects may fall short of the NIST formal definitions.  I think as technologists we tend to rebel against the status quo in attempt not just to redefine the marketplace but also to claim for our own a new path as we iterate over the current challenges for delivering new applications and services.

Just as we have overused and bludgeoned the hell out of terms like internet, virtualization and web (the prior name cloud), we are bound to move into a new set of vernacular definitions such as intercloudinterweb, fog computing  or in the case of Forrester CEO George Colony APP-Internet.

“Web and cloud are .. outmoded” concludes Mr. Colony as he goes on to explain the App-Internet as the next model offering a “faster, simpler, more immersive and a better experience”.

The thesis for this conclusion is based on the figure above where the y-axis is defined as “utilities per dollar” and the x-axis is time. P is representative of “Moores Law” and speaks to the scalability of processing power. In reality the beauty behind Moores law is lost in translation. What Moore really said was “transistors on a chip would double every year” and subsequently David House, an Intel executive at the time, noted that the changes would cause computer performance to double every 18 months [1].

If you plot transistors per chip against actual computer performance you might see a different picture due to the thermodynamic properties and manufacturing complexity of CMOS based technology not to mention the complexity in actually utilizing that hardware with todays languages, application methodologies, libraries and compilers.

S is for the growth in storage which Colony calls the “Hitachi’s Law”. This predicts that storage will double approximately every 12 months. This also is somewhat contrived as the limits of scaling magnetic medium on disk are becoming extremely difficult as we approach the limits of perpendicular recording although maybe there is some promise with the discovery of adding NaCl to the recoding process[2]. Yes we can build bigger houses with disks packed to the ceiling, but the logistics in managing such a facility is increasingly hitting the upper limits. (imagine shuffling through a facility over 100,000sqft and replacing all those failed hard drives)

N is related to the network where Colony goes on to describe the adoption rates of 3G vs 4G. First and foremost nailing down exactly what 4G is and means is an exercise in itself, as most vendors are implementing various technologies under this umbrella[3]. With an estimated 655Million people adopting 4G in its various forms by 2010[4] and the quick adoption of new mobile devices, I think this is a bit short sighted..

But there is another aspect to this which is missing which is all of the towers that collect those 3G and 4G signals need to be back-hauled into the Internet backbone. With 40GE/100GE ratified in the IEEE, I suspect the first wave of 100GE deployments to be put into production in 2012 [5]

Colony goes on to say “If your architecture was based on network you are wasting all of these improvements in processing and storage.. the center (meaning the warehouse scale datacenters such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft) is becoming more powerful and the periphery is becoming ever more powerful…

His point is valid to an extent but not because of the P, S, N curves but because now that the devices are so powerful AND we have such a robust network infrastructure we can take advantage of all of this processing power and storage available to us. Afterall if transport pricing had continue to rise as the late great Jim Gray predicted in his paper on Distributed Computing Economics [7] we would not even be having this discussion because without the distribution of data capability in the network, all we would have were some very smart expensive devices that would essentially be a fancy calculator.

To that point Colony compares todays devices with their predecessors but as stated earlier its not a fair comparison. “In 1993 the iPad 2 would have been considered one of the 30 fastest computers in the world”. Unfortunately the problem space has changed from 1993 and if we follow Parkinsons Corollary called “Jevons Paradox” or the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource[6] it would be hard to compare these two accurately.

So the reality is that all of these iterations, from the early ARPANET viewpoint of access to expensive time-sharing computer centers to the highly distributed and interconnected services we have today are just a succession of changes necessary to keep up with the demand for more information. Who knows what interesting changes will happen in the future but time and time again we have seen amazing strides taken to build communities and share our lives through technology.

 So lets take a closer look at the App-Internet model.

Hmm. So how is this different from todays “Web-Centric” application architecture? After all isn’t a web browser like Chrome and Safari an “application”?.

Jim Gray defined the ideal mobile task to be stateless (no database or data access), has a tiny network input and output and has a huge computational demand[7]. To be clear, his assumptions of course were that transport pricing would be rising to make the economics infeasible, but as we know the opposite effect happened as transport pricing has fallen


“Most web and data processing applications are network or state intensive and are not economically viable as mobile applications” Again the assumptions he had about telecom pricing made this prediction incorrect. He also contended that “Data loading and data scanning are cpu-intensive; but they are also data intensive and therefore are not economically viable as mobile applications. The root of is conjecture was that “the break-even point is 10,000 instructions per byte of network traffic or about a minute of computation per MB of network traffic”.

Clearly the economics and computing power has changed significantly in only a few short years. No wonder we see such paradigm shifts and restructuring of architectures and philosophies.

The fundamental characteristic which supports a “better experience” is defined as latency. We perceive latency as the responsiveness of an application to our interactions. So is he talking about the ability to process more information on intelligent edge devices? Does he not realize that a good portion of applications written for web are built with JavaScript, and that the advances in Virtual Machine technology like Google V8 is what enables all of that highly immersive and fast responding interactions? Even data loading and data scanning has improved through advances in AJAX programming and the emerging WebSockets protocol allowing for full duplex communications between the browser and the server in a common serialization format such as JSON.

There will always be a tradeoff however especially as the data we consume is not our own but other peoples. For instance, the beloved photo app in Facebook would never be possible utilizing an edge centric approach as the data actually being consumed is from someone else. There is no way to store n^2 information with all your friends from an edge device it must be centralized to an extent.

For some applications like gaming we have a high-sensitivity to latency as the interactions are very time-dependent both for the actions necessary to play the game but also how we take input for those actions through visual queues in the game itself. But if we look at examples such as OnLive which allows for lightweight endpoints to be used in highly immersive first-person gaming, clearly there is a huge dependency on the network. This is also the prescriptive approach behind Silk, although Colony talks about this in his context of App-Internet. The reality is that the Silk browser is merely a renderer. All of the heavy lifting is done on the Amazon servers and delivered over a lightweight communications framework called SPDY.

Apple has clearly dominated pushing all focus today on mobile device development. The App-Internet model is nothing more than the realization that “Applications” must be in the context of the model something which the prior “cloud” and “web” didn’t clearly articulate.

The Flash wars are over.. or are they?

 So what is the point of all of this App-Internet anyway? Well, the adoption of HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript and advanced libraries, code generations, etc.. have clearly unified web development and propelled the interface into a close to native environment. There are however some inconsistencies in the model which allows Apple to stay just one-step ahead with the look and feel of native applications. The reality is we have already been in this App-Internet model for sometime now, ever since the first XHR (XMLHttpRequest) was embedded in a page with access to a high performance JavaScript engine like V8.

So don’t be fooled, without the network we would have no ability to distribute work and handle the massive amount of data being created and shared around the world. Locality is important until its not.. at least until someone build a quantum computer network.

over and out…

  8. (Note: This is more representative as a trend rather than wholly accurate assessment of pricing)

Cloud Networking Hyper or Reality?

A colleague of mine pointed out a new post by Jayshree Ullal from Arista Networks on Cloud Networking Reflections. I can’t help to comment on a few things for my own sanity.

Prediction #1: The rise in dense virtualization is pushing the scale of cloud networking.

Evaluation #1: True

IT is very “trend” oriented, meaning sometimes the complexity of operating a distributed system are people are too busy look deep into the problem for themselves and instead lean on the communities of marketing wizards to make a decision for them. Despite VMWare’s success, hardware virtualization makes up a very small part of the worldwide server base, which is estimated at around 32M servers [1]. I predict within a few short years a reversal in this trend, which peaked around 2008 for several reasons.

  • One is the realization that the “hardware virtualization” tax grows increasingly with I/O, a very significant problem as we move into the era of “Big Data”. The reality is as we move to more interactive and social driven applications the OS container is not as crucial as it is in a generalized client/server model. Application developers need to continuously deal with higher degrees of scalability, application flexibility, improved reliability, and faster development cycles. Using techniques like Lean software development and Continuous Delivery, application developers can get a Minimal Viable Product out the door in weeks sometimes days.
  • Two, the age of  “Many Task Computing” is upon us and will eventually sweep away the brain-dead apps and the entire overhead that comes with supporting multiple thick-containers. I say lets get down with LXC or better yet Illumos Zones, which gives us the namespace isolation without the SYSCALL overhead.
  • Three, heterogeneous computing is crucial for interactive and engaging applications. Virtualization hides this at the wrong level; we need the programming abstractions such as OpenCL/WebCL for dealing with specialization in vector programming and floating-point support via GPU’s. Even micro-servers will have a role to play here allowing a much finer grain of control while still improving power efficiency.

Its not “dense virtualization” pushing the scale of cloud networking, it is the changing patterns of the way applications are built and used. This will unfortunately continue to change the landscape of both systems design as well as network.

My Advice: Designers will finally wake up and stop being forced into this “hyper-virtualized” compute arbitrage soup and engineer application services to exploit heterogeneous computing instead of being constrained by a primitive and unnecessary abstraction layer. In the mean time, ask your developers to spend the time to build scalable platform services with proper interfaces to durable and volatile storage, memory and compute. In this way you isolate yourself from specific implementations removing the burden of supporting these runaway applications.

Prediction #2: “Fabric” has become the marketing buzzword in switching architectures from vendors trying to distinguish themselves.

Evaluation #2: Half-True.

I think the point of having “specialized” fabrics is a side effect of the scalability limits of 1990’s based network design, protocols and interconnect strategies. Specialized and proprietary fabrics have been around for years, Think Machines, Cray, SGI and Alpha all needed to deal with scalability limits connecting memory and compute together. Today’s data centers are an extension to this and have become modern super-computers connected together (i.e. a fabric)

Generally the current constraints and capabilities of technology today have forced a “rethink” on how to optimize network design for a different set of problems. There is nothing terribly shocking here unless you believe that current approaches are satisfactory. If the current architectures are satisfactory, why do we have so much confusion on whether to use L2 multi-pathing or L3 ECMP? Why is there not ONE methodology for scaling networks? Well I’ll tell you if you haven’t figured it out. Its because the current set of technologies ARE constrained and lack the capabilities necessary for truly building properly designed networks for future workloads.

The beauty of Arista’s approach is we can scale and manage two to three times better with standards. I fail to understand the need for vendor-specific proprietary tags for active multipathing when standards-based MLAG at Layer 2 or ECMP at Layer 3 (and future TRILL) resolves the challenges of scale in cloud networks. 

Scale 2x to 3x better with standards? How about 10x or better yet 50x? Really 2-3x improvement in anything is statistically insignificant and you are still left with corner cases, which absolutely grind your business to a halt. Pointing out MLAG is better than TRILL or SPB or ECMP is better than whatever is not the point. I mean really, how many tags do we need in a frame anyway and what the hell with VXLAN and NVGRE? Additional data-plane bits are not the answer, we need to rethink the layering model, address architecture and error and flow control mechanisms.

There is no solution unless you break down the problem, layer by layer until you remove all of the elements down to just the invariants. Its possible that is the direction of OpenFlow/SDN, the only problem maybe that completely destroys the layers entirely but maybe that’s the only way to build them back up the right way.

BTW. There is nothing really special about saying “standards”, after all TCP/IP itself was a rogue entry in the standards work (INWG 96) so its another accidental architecture that happened to work.. for a time!

My Advice: For those who have complete and utter autonomy, treat the DC as a giant computer which should be designed to meet the goals of your business within the capabilities and constraints of todays technology. Once you figure it out, you can use the same techniques in software to OpenSource your innovation making it generally feasible for others to enter the market (if you care about supply chain). For those who don’t, ask your vendors and standards bodies why they can’t deliver a single architecture which doesn’t continuously violate the invariances by adding tags, encaps, bits, etc..

Prediction #4: Commercially available silicon offers significant power, performance and scale benefits over traditional ASIC designs.

Evaluation #4: Very true.

Yea no surprise here, but its not as simple as just picking a chip off the shelf. When designing something as complex as an ASIC, you have to make certain tradeoffs. Feature sets build up over time, and it takes time to move back to a leaner model of primitive services with exceptional performance. There is no difference between an ASIC designer working for a fabless semiconductor company spinning out wafers from TSMC and a home grown approach, it is in the details of the design and implementation with all of the sacrifices one makes when choosing how to allocate resources.

My Advice: Don’t make decisions based on who makes the ASIC but what can be leveraged to build a balanced and flexible system. The reality is there is more to uncover than just building ASIC’s, for instance how about a simpler data plane model which would allow us to create cheaper and higher performance ASIC’s?

Prediction # 5: FCoE adoption has been slow and not lived up to its marketing hype.

Evaluation # 5: True.

“A key criterion for using 10GbE in storage applications is having switches with adequate packet buffering that can cope with speed mismatches to avoid packet loss and balance performance, “

This is also misleading as it compares FCOE with FC with 10GE sales as a way of dismissing a viable technology. But the reality is that the workload pattern changed moving the focus from interconnect to interface.

From an application development point of view, interfacing with storage at a LUN or “block” level is incredibly limited. It’s simply just not the right level of abstraction, which is why we started to move to NAS, or “file” based approaches and even converging the reemergence of content based and distributed object stores.

Believe me, developers don’t give a care if there is an FC backend or FCOE, it is irrelevant, the issue is performance. When you have a SAN based system you are dealing with a system balanced for dealing with different patterns of data access, reliability and coherency. This might be exactly what you don’t want, you may be very write intensive or read intensive and require a different set of properties than current SAN arrays provide.

The point about adding buffering to the equation not only makes things worse, but also increases the cost of the network substantially. Firstly the queues can build up very quickly especially at higher clock speeds and the impact on TCP flow-control is a serious issue. I am sure the story is not over and we will see different ways of dealing with this problem in the future. You might want to look a little closer at FC protocols and see if you can see any familiarity with TRILL.

My Advice: Forget the hype of Hadoop and concentrate on isolating the workload patterns that impact your traffic matrix. Concentrate on what the expectations of the protocols are, how to handle error and flow control, mobility, isolation, security and addressing. Develop a fundamental understanding of how to impart fair scheduling in your system to deal with demand floods, partitioning events and chaotic events. Turns out a proper “load shedding” capability can go along way in sustaining system integrity.

Yes I know, thats a lot of opaque nonsense, and while many advantages exist for businesses which choose to utilize the classical models, there are still many problems in dealing with the accidental architecture of todays networks. The future is not about what we know today, but what we can discover and learn from our mistakes once you realize we made them.

While I do work at Cisco Systems as a Technical Leader in the DC Group, these thoughts are my own and don’t necessarily represent those of my employer.



A look back at Internet History

While doing research on the evolution of protocols I came across an interesting documentary film about the history of the ARPANET and birth of the Internet[1]. Definitely a must watch if you haven’t seen it to see how our industry was first envisioned by the early ARPAnet engineers.

Some reflection on the ideas which even today have not fully lived up with the pre-Internet expectations.

Applications moves across computers transparently, while the network provides automatic load leveling to avoid congestion. Users login to the network without care of where the computation is taking place and distributed operating systems decide which computer can best perform the job.

Files can be backed up on more than one site so files are always accessible and retrievable. People, data, computers, circuits, protocols and facilities are all resources which allow people to work together and collaborate.

Computing centers can be built with specialized form and function, data communication evolve allowing every terminal, computer to interconnect. Connect at messages not at circuits.

Some day you can store 100,000 books for $1MM

Many realize a big problem in the Internet (really not an Internet but a bunch of concatenated IP networks or catenet) has been around the adoption of TCP/IP by DARPA in the early days. Alex McKenzie from BBN has a great history on the discussions that progressed from ARPANet NCP to INWG-96[2]

Even after the international body selected INWG-96 for testing amongst the emerging networks such as ARPANET and Cyclades. DARPA adopted TCP/IP, the somewhat defective version of INWG 39 that lacked a proper addressing model, incorporated an ineffective congestion control system, and failed to clearly distinguish the end-to-end TCP layer from the IP layer (the infamous TCP “pseudo-header” ties TCP sessions to specific network interfaces and sub-networks.) The effort to correct the TCP/IP deficiencies, ISO’s Open System Interconnect project, became mired in politics and missed deadline after deadline, ultimately missing the window for an Internet-wide upgrade, and now we’ve landed in the IPv6 conversion.[3]

There are many ideas how to solve the problems in TCP/IP some are under the Clean-Slate programs such as GENI, FIND, etc.. Some see hacking the datalink layer, others RINA and yet others see OpenFlow as the framework to fix the structural problems with TCP/IP. A good overview of the problems and the possible solutions was just published by Time Warner Cable Research, Remaking the Internet: Taking Network Architecture to the Next Level[4]

All of the current protocol work masks the problems of the network and internetwork layer (figure 1). This creates complexity, adds to the cost of the network and ultimately diminishes the use of the network I.e. Such as the move to cloud computing.

Clearly this problem exists, its not going away and in fact is getting worse every day as the amount of smart connected devices grows. Eventually someone will need to push this industry into proper theory and engineering after 40yrs of craft. This is not to say it is easy, it won’t be. Many still have a hard time seeing beyond TCP/IP as its the only protocol they have known.

Clean-Slate opportunity is all around for those willing and able to take on this endeavor. We have learned a alot in the past 4 decades, TCP was under development for almost a decade and implemented in less than 1 year from specification to implementation . I think its time for a change.

Figure 1