How does Openflow and SDN help Virtualization/Cloud

December 21, 2011 at 3:04 am 3 comments

Introduction to Software Defined Networking and OpenFlow

Often time I hear the term Openflow and Software Defined Networking Networking used in many different context which range from solving something simple and useful to literally solving the world hunger problem (or fixing the world economy for that matter). I often get asked to explain the various aspects of how Openflow is changing our lives. So here goes a explanation of the religion called Openflow (and Software Defined Networking) and various ways its manifesting itself in our day to day life. Again its too much to write in one article so I will make it a series of 3 articles. This one focuses on the protocol itself. The 2nd article will focus on how people are trying to develop it and some end user perspective that I have accumulated in last year or so. The last article in series will discuss the challenges and what are we doing to help.

Value Proposition

The basic piece of Openflow is nothing more than a wire protocol that allows a piece of code to talk to another piece of code. The idea is that for a typical network equipment, instead of logging in and configuring it via its embedded web or command line interface (the way you configure your home wifi router), you can get the Controller from someone other than the equipment vendor. Now technically and in short term, you are probably worse off because you are getting the equipment from one guy and the management interface from other guy and there are bound to be rough edges.

Openflow creates a standard around how the management interface or Controller talks to the equipment so the equipment vendors can design their equipment without worrying about the management piece and someone else can create a management piece knowing well that it will manage any equipment that support Openflow. So people who understand standards ask whats the big deal? I still can’t do more than what the equipment is designed to do!! And that is the holy grail around any standard. By creating the standard, you are separating the guys who make equipment to focus on their expertise and guys doing management to make the controllers better. This is in no way different than how computers work today. Intel/AMD creates the key chips, vendors like Dell, HP etc. create the servers and Linux community (or BSD, OpenSolaris, etc) creates the OS and it all works together offering a better solution. It achieves one more thing – it drives the H/W cost lower and creates more competition while allowing a end user to pick the best H/W (from their point of view) and the best controller based on features, reliability, etc. There is no monopoly, plenty of choices and its all great for end user.

Specially in the networking space where innovation was lacking for a while and few companies were used to huge margins because users had no choice. One trend that is driving the fire behind SDN is virtualization. Both Server and storage side (H/W and OS) have made good progress on this front but Network is far behind. By opening up the space, SDN is allowing people like me (who are OS and Distributed Systems people) to step into this world and drive the same innovation on network side. So Openflow/SDN are great standards for the end user and people who understand it see the power behind it.

Key Features

Openflow Spec 1.1.2 is just out with minor improvements while 1.1.1 has been out for few months. Most of the vendors only have 1.0.0 implemented. So if you look at the spec, you will see data structures and message syntax needed for a controller to talk to a device it wants to control. Functionality wise, its can be grouped in following parts (understand that I am trying to help people who don’t want to read hundreds of pages of specs):

  • The device discovery and connection establishment part where you tie in a controller to a device that it wants to control.
  • Creating the Flows. In a typical network, there is different type of traffic mixed in, packets for which can be grouped together in the form of flow. If you look at layer 2 header, packets for the same VLAN can be a flow, packets belonging to a pair of mac addresses can be a flow and so on. Similarly packets belonging to a IP subnet or IP address plus TCP/UDP port (service) can be termed as a flow. Any combination of Layer 2, 3 and 4 headers that allows us to uniquely identify a packet stream on the wire is term as flow and Openflow protocol makes special efforts to specify these flows. A Openflow control can specify a flow to a switch which can apply to specific ports or to all ports and ask the switch to take special actions when it matches a packet to a flow.
  • Action on matching a flow. As part of specifying the flow, the protocol allows the controller to specify what action to take when a packet matches the flow. The action can range from copy the packet, decrement Time to Live, change/add QoS label, etc. But the most important action (in my view) is the ability to direct the original packet (or a copy) to specific port or to the controller itself.
  • Flow Table where the flows are created. For actual device, this is typically the TCAM where the flow is instantiated and applied to incoming packets. Most of devices are pretty limited by this and can typically support a very small set of flows today. The protocol allows for specifying multiple tables and the ability to pipeline across those tables but given the state of today’s and mid term hardware, single table is all we can work with.
  • The the last piece is the Counters. Most of the devices support port level counters which the openflow controllers can read. In addition the protocol supports flow level counters but the current set of devices are very limited on that as well.

Putting it all together

So now we understand the components, we can see how it works. A controller (which a piece of code) running on standard server box starts and discovers a device that it wants to manage. In today’s
world, that device typically is a ethernet switch. Once connected, it puts the device under it control and sets flow with actions and reads status from the device.

As an example, assume that a user is experimenting with new Layer 3 protocol and he can add a flow that makes the switch redirect all matching packets to the controller where the packet gets modified appropriately and redirect through a specific egress port on the device. Much easier to implement since controller itself is a piece of code running on standard OS so adding code to it to do something experimental is pretty easy. The most powerful thing here is that the user is not impacting the rest of the network and doesn’t need his/her own dedicated network.

My own favorite (that we have experimented with) is debugging application for a data center or enterprise where the user needs to debug his own client/server application. The user can try and capture the packets on multiple machines running his clients and server but the easier thing would be to set a flow on the switch based on server IP address and TCP port (for the service) and a action that allows a copy of all matching packets to be sent to the controller with a timestamp. This allows the user to debug his application much more easily.

Again, the power of Openflow and Software Defined Networking is that it allows people to innovate and requires someone to solve their problem by writing simple code (or use code provided by others). Its important to keep in mind that switch is a really powerful device since everything goes through it and allowing it to be controlled by C, Java, or Perl code is very powerful. The control moves from the switch designer to application developers (to the discomfort of the switch vendors :)

So finally, how does it help Virtualization and Cloud?

This is the reason why I am so excited and ended up spending time writing the blog. The key premise in world of virtualization is dynamic control for resource utilization. Again, network utilization and SLA are important but the key part we need to solve is the utilization of servers. The holy grail is a large pool of servers each running 20-50 virtual machines that are controlled by Software which optimizes for CPU/memory utilization. The key issue is the Virtual Machines are grouped together in terms of application they run or the application developer that controls them. To prevent free for all, they typically are tied together with some VLAN, ACL code, have a network identity in terms of IP/MAC addresses, and SLA/QoS etc. For the controlling Software to migrate the VM freely, it want to manage the VM network parameters on the target switch port as well. And this is where the current generation of switches fail. They require human intervention to configure the various network parameters on the switch that match the VM.

So in order for a VM to migrate freely under software control, it still requires human intervention on the network side. With Openflow, the Software orchestrating the server utilization by scheduling the VMs based on policies/SLA, can set the matching network policies without human intervention.

Just the way a typical server OS has a policy driven schedular which control the various application threads on dozens of CPUs (yes even a low end dual socket server has 6 core each with multiple hardware threads), the Openflow allows us to build a combined server/storage/network scheduler that can optimize the VM placement based on configured policies.

Again, Openflow is just a wire protocol and a pseudo standard but it allows people like me add huge value which wasn’t possible before. In next article, we will go deeper into what people are trying to build and look at some more specific use cases. Stay Tuned and Happy Holidays!!

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Network 2.0: Virtualization without Limits How does Openflow, SDN help Virtualization/Cloud (Part 2 of 3)

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