I, For One, Welcome Our New OpenFlow Overlords

When I first signed up for Networking Field Day 2 (The Electric Boogaloo), I really had no idea what OpenFlow was. I’d read a few articles, listened to a few podcasts, but still only had a vague idea of what it was. People I respect highly like Greg Ferro of Packet Pushers were into it, so it had my attention. But still, not much of a clue what it was. I attended the OpenFlow Symposium, which preceeded the activites of Networking Field Day 2, and had even less of an idea of what it was.

Then I saw NEC (really? NEC?) do a demonstration. And my mind was blown.

Side note: Let this be a lesson to all vendors. Everything works great in a PowerPoint presentation. It also conveys very little about what a product actually does. Live demonstrations are what get grumpy network admins (and we’re all grumpy) giddy like schoolgirls at  Justin Bieber concert. You should have seen Ivan Pepelnjak

I’m not sure if I got all my assumptions right about OpenFlow, so feel free to point out if I got something completely bone-headedly wrong. But from what I could gather, OpenFlow could potentially do a lot of things:

  • Replace traditional Layer 2 MAC learning and propagation mechanisms
  • Replace traditional Layer 3 protocols
  • Make policy-based routing (routing based on TCP/UDP port) something useful instead of a one-off, pain in the ass, ok just-this-one time creature it is now
  • Create “traceroute on steroids”

Switching (Layer 2)

Switching is, well, rather stupid. At least learning MAC addresses and their locations are. To forward frames, switches need to learn which ports to find the various MAC addresses. Right now the only way they learn about it is listening to the cacophony of hosts broadcasting and spewing frames. And when one switch learns a MAC address, it’s not like it tells the others. No, in switching, every switch is on its own for learning. In a single Layer 2 domain, every switch needs to learn where to find every MAC address on its own.

Probably the three biggest consequences of this method are as follows

  • No loop avoidance. The only way to prevent loops is to prevent redundant paths (i.e. spanning-tree protocol)
  • Every switch in a Layer 2 domain needs to know every frickin’ MAC address. The larger the Layer 2 domain, the more MAC addresses need to be learned. Suddenly, a CAM table size of 8,000 MAC addresses doesn’t seem quite enough.
  • Broadcasts like woah. What happens when a switch gets a frame that it doesn’t have a CAM entry for? BROADCAST IT OUT ALL PORTS BUT THE RECEIVING PORT. It’s the all-caps typing of the network world.
For a while in the early 2000’s we could get away with all this. Multi-layer switches (switches that did Layer 3 routing as well) got fast enough to route as fast as they could switch, so we could easily keep our Layer 2 domains small and just route everything.

That is, until VMware came and screwed it all up. Now we had to have Layer 2 domains much larger than we’d planned for. 4,000 entry CAM tables quickly became cramped.

MAC learning would be more centralized with OpenFlow. ARP would still be there at the edge, so a server would still think it was communicating with a regular switch network. But OpenFlow could determine which switches need to know what MAC addresses are where, so every switch doesn’t need to learn everything.

And no spanning-tree. Loop avoidance is prevented by the OpenFlow controller. No spanning-tree (although you can certainly do spanning-tree at the edge to communicate with legacy segments).

Routing (Layer 3)

Routing isn’t quite as stupid as switching. There are a number of good protocols out there that will scale pretty well, but it does require configuration on each device. It’s dynamic in that it can do multi-pathing (where traditional Layer 2 can’t), as well as recover from dead links without taking down the network for several (dozens of) seconds.  but it doesn’t quite allow for centralized control, and it has limited dynamic ability. For instance, there’s not mechanism to do “oh, hey, for right now why don’t we just move all these packets from this source to that source” in an efficient way. Sure, you can inject some host routes to do that, but it’s got to come from some sort of centralized controller.

Flow Routing (Layer 4)

So why stop at Layer 3? Why not route based on TCP/UDP header information? It can be done with policy-based routing (PBR) today, but it’s not something that can be communicated from router to router (OSPF cares not how you want to direct a TCP port 80 flow versus a TCP port 443 flow).  There is also WCCP, the Web Cache Communication Protocol, which today is not used for web caches, but WAN Optimization Controllers, like Cisco’s WAAS, or Cisco’s sworn enemy, Riverbed (seriously, just say the word ‘Riverbed’ at a Cisco office).

Sure it’s watery and tastes like piss, but at least it’s not policy-based routing

A switch with modern silicon can look at Layer 3 and Layer 4 headers as easily as they can look at Layer 2 headers. It’s all just bits in the flow, man. OpenFlow takes advantage of this, and creates, for lack of a cooler term, a Layer 2/3/4 overlord.

I, for one, welcome our new OpenFlow overlords

TCAMs or shared memory, or whatever you want to call the forwarding tables in your multi-layer switches can be programmed at will by an OpenFlow overlord, instead of being populated by the lame-ass Layer 2, Layer 3, and sometimes Layer 4 mechanisms on a switch-by-switch basis.

Since we can direct traffic based on flows throughout a multi-switch network, there’s lots of interesting things we can do with respect to load balancers, firewalls, IPS, caches, etc. Pretty interesting stuff.

Flow View (or Traceroute on Steroids)

I think one of the coolest demonstrations from NEC was when they showed the flow maps. They could punch up any source and destination address (IP or MAC) and there would be a graphical representation of the flow (and which devices they went through) on the screen. The benefits for that would be obvious. Server admin complain about slowness? Trace the flow, and check the interfaces on all the transit devices. That’s something that might take quite a while in a regular route/switch network, but can be done in a few seconds with an OpenFlow controller.

An OpenFlow Controller Tracks a Flow

To some extent, there are other technologies that can take care of some of these issues. For instance, TRILL and SPB take a good wack at the Layer 2 bullshit. Juniper’s QFabric does a lot of the ain’t-nothin-but-a-tuple thang and switches based on Layer2/3 information. But in terms of potential, I think OpenFlow has them all beat.

Don’t get too excited right now though, as NEC is the only vendor that has working implementation of OpenFlow controller, and other vendors are working on theirs. Standford apparently has OpenFlow up and running in their environment, but its all still in the early stages.

Will OpenFlow become the future? Possibly, quite possibly. But even if what we now call OpenFlow isn’t victorious, something like it will be. There’s no denying that this approach, or something similar, is a much better way to handle traffic engineering in the future than our current approach. I’ve only scratched the surface of what can be done with this type of network design. There’s also a lot that can be gained in terms of virtualization (an OpenFlow vSwitch?) as well as applications telling the network what to do. Cool stuff.

Note: As a delegate/blogger, my travel and accommodations were covered by Gestalt IT, who vendors paid to have spots during the Networking Field Day. Vendors pay Gestalt IT to present, so while my travel (hotel, airfare, meals) were covered indirectly by the vendors, no other remuneration (save for the occasional tchotchke) from any of the vendors, directly or indirectly, or by Gestalt IT was recieved. Vendors were not promised, nor did they ask for any of us to write about them, or write about them positively. In fact, we sometimes say their products are shit (when, to be honest, sometimes they are, although this one wasn’t). My time was unpaid. 

4 Responses to I, For One, Welcome Our New OpenFlow Overlords

  1. Pingback: Networking Field Day 2: The Links

  2. Rob Sherwood says:

    Hi Tony,

    Great post!

    A few quick comments since you say you’re new to OpenFlow: if you liked the NEC demo, there is a very strong tradition of doing demos with OpenFlow, to the point where we got tired of giving them over and over again in person, so we recorded a lot of them. Check out the (growing!) list of demos at http://www.openflow.org/videos. Yes, a lot of these are research-y type projects, but it doesn’t take too much squinting to see how they could easily be turned in a commercial reality (e.g., by one of the increasing number of OpenFlow startups).

    Second, it’s true that only NEC has a controller in general availability, but I wouldn’t say “NEC is the only vendor that has working implementation of OpenFlow controller”: a number of companies (including my employer, Big Switch Networks) have very working controller implementations deployed in production networks, but since these are private customer trials, not much can be said publicly about them. In fact, if I had to guess, I would say the deployments and controllers that people can publicly talk about are really just a small tip of the ice berg.

    One public event I can point to is the OpenFlow booth at this year’s Interop – 14+ vendors (http://www.interop.com/lasvegas/it-expo/interopnet/openflow-lab/sponsors.php) brought OpenFlow-capable boxes and each of the controllers present (Big Switch, NEC, etc.) were able to work with all of them.

    In any case, welcome to the fold and I hope you don’t end up hoping that you had voted for Kodos 🙂

    – Rob Sherwood
    .

  3. Pingback: OpenFlow’s Awkward Teen Years | The Data Center Overlords

  4. Pingback: OpenFlow: Enterprise Use Cases | David's CCIE Blog

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