Ethernet equipment

A New Ethernet Contender

6:20 PM -- LOS ANGELES -- OSA Executive Forum -- What if you could replace commodity switches or routers with something even more commodity: plain old servers?

It's something I'd talked about with Netronome CEO Niel Viljoen a few months ago, and he described the idea again during a panel at Monday's Executive Forum. The idea sounds radical, like something Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) would do, but he's got a compelling argument.

You'll recall that Netronome took over the high end of the Intel network processor business. (See Netronome Reigniting Intel's IXP.) The idea here is that clusters of servers could be outfitted with network interface cards based on those processors; the NICs would go where the disk drives normally sit.

Add some easily available software -- including, possibly, routing and control software from the open-source OpenFlow project -- and boom: you've got an inexpensive block of forwarding power.

The target is the data center, a beast that's getting bigger and hungrier as cloud-based applications start to take hold. Netronome sees potential there, especially as its network processors grow to 200Gbit/s and 400Gbit/s sizes, Viljoen tells me. (Those numbers represent processing ability; don't confuse it with 100Gbit/s optical connections.)

Vividh Siddha, vice president of engineering at IP Infusion Inc. , tells me he's heard some chatter about using this idea in telecom as well, in LTE mesh networks.

I don't yet know what the Ethernet switch vendors think of this, but I don't think it would surprise them. All along, I've assumed that the low end of the switch/router business would be eaten up by commodity vendors, probably largely from Asia. Cisco talked about this openly a few years ago. (See Chinese Competitors Chew at Cisco.)

This takes the idea a step further. And while I like the thought of it being a DIY movement, it's likely that some outside company would start offering these kinds of forwarding clusters. Based on Siddha's description, it sounds like a startup in Palo Alto, Calif., called Nicira Networks Inc. , is working along those lines. This could be an idea worth keeping tabs on.

— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading

SimonParry 12/5/2012 | 5:10:52 PM
re: A New Ethernet Contender


Last year at LR Ethernet Europe, Matt Finnie from Interoute presented on the same topic. I'm sure that you can find the presentation, but the summary was that he sees the data centre being built out of three elements: Storage, Processor, Switch; and that the three elements do not correspond to three boxes. A Router is a big Switch with a little Processor and no Storage. A Server is a big Processor, with some Storage and a little Switch.

The other company to watch is Marvell. They have just taken an ARM licence, and combined with their dominance in the Ethernet PHY market, they could build exactly the silicon you describe...


paolo.franzoi 12/5/2012 | 5:10:50 PM
re: A New Ethernet Contender


So, can you build a router out of a server and Open Source?  Yes, I think you could.  I actually build a spam filter out of a server, some open source and some proprietary code (mostly Java and Perl).  As long as you are not pushing the boundaries of performance, it could be done.  I do not expect an IT team to do that.  It takes too much time and will have its own challenges.  It is not quite as easy as downloading some code and poof you have a router.  You still have to manage it, maintain it, update it, and control it.  That is what a router company provides.  Now, if you wanted to make networking products out of Open Source + glue to compete at the low end - maybe.  But you are going to fight an uphill battle against the management interfaces of Cisco and Juniper.

So, possible - not likely in broad terms.



paolo.franzoi 12/5/2012 | 5:10:49 PM
re: A New Ethernet Contender


Maintenance does not mean things are hard broken but are soft broken.  One of the things about Linux servers is that they often require some amount of human intervention every once and awhile - unless they are underloaded.  Things like switches and routers are built to run 24x7x365.  Computers are expected to reboot perioidically.  To create a Linux server that works that way generally means that you are tuning the heck out of the distribution to compensate for various folks doing silly things - like having your console start up with a set of fishes swimming on it (Dang you OpenSuse!).

You would say...then lock it down and don't change it.   Well, that is an interesting issue as if you don't follow the distribution updates then you are likely to end up with security and application holes (Apps have to get back ported to old kernels if you need to take an update to get a bug fix).

For all the good things that OpenSource is about infinite uptime with no patches or maintenance is not one of them.  At least not without work.



Pete Baldwin 12/5/2012 | 5:10:49 PM
re: A New Ethernet Contender

Thanks, Simon, I'll check that out. If Marvell can do it, I'm going to assume Broadcom can as well (I haven't thought that comment through; it's just my knee-jerk reaction).

To Seven's point about maintenance and the like -- possibly true, but aren't those abilities becoming widespread in the talent pool?  Also -- and I may be way off base here -- I'm thinking these switches might be treated like the servers in Google's world, i.e., when they break or go bad, you just throw them away and install something new. One-stop maintenance.  :)

fgoldstein 12/5/2012 | 5:10:46 PM
re: A New Ethernet Contender

Linux-based routers in particular are easy to come by.  At the high end, Vyatta takes COTS servers and can route 10G Ethernet through them.  They have their own Linux distro, which you can download, though the paid version is more up to date and of course the real bonus for the enterprise market is support.  ImageStream has been doing this for years too, using industrial-type components, and making their own WAN boards.  Hence they have a range of mostly midrange Linux routers.

At the low end, Netgear's WRT54G originally ran Linux, and its very small distro has forked into several projects, including OpenWRT, DD-WRT and Tomato.  These can replace the vendor code on a number of home-type routers; some router vendors use them instead of rollling their own software.  For the most part they're reliable. This is embedded Linux, not designed around a console or display terminal.  It's considered pretty reliable, though of course that depends on the details of your build.

Whether this approach makes sense down at the Ethernet layer, where there's less processing going on, is a different question.

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