Peak Fibre Channel

There have been several articles talking about the death of Fibre Channel. This isn’t one of them. However, it is an article about “peak Fibre Channel”. I think, as a technology, Fibre Channel is in the process of (if it hasn’t already) peaking.

There’s a lot of technology in IT that doesn’t simply die. Instead, it grows, peaks, then slowly (or perhaps very slowly) fades. Consider Unix/RISC. The Unix/RISC market right now is a caretaker platform. Very few new projects are built on Unix/RISC. Typically a new Unix server is purchased to replace an existing but no-longer-supported Unix server to run an older application that we can’t or won’t move onto a more modern platform. The Unix market has been shrinking for over a decade (2004 was probably the year of Peak Unix), yet the market is still a multi-billion dollar revenue market. It’s just a (slowly) shrinking one.

I think that is what is happening to Fibre Channel, and it may have already started. It will become (or already is) a caretaker platform. It will run the workloads of yesterday (or rather the workloads that were designed yesterday), while the workloads of today and tomorrow have a vastly different set of requirements, and where Fibre Channel doesn’t make as much sense.

Why Fibre Channel Doesn’t Make Sense in the Cloud World

There are a few trends in storage that are working against Fibre Channel:

  • Public cloud growth outpaces private cloud
  • Private cloud storage endpoints are more ephemeral and storage connectivity is more dynamic
  • Block storage is taking a back seat to object (and file) storage
  • RAIN versus RAID
  • IP storage is as performant as Fibre Channel, and more flexible

Cloudy With A Chance of Obsolescence

The transition to cloud-style operations isn’t a great for Fibre Channel. First, we have the public cloud providers: Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure, Rackspace, Google, etc. They tend not to use much Fibre Channel (if any at all) and rely instead on IP-based storage or other solutions. And what Fibre Channel they might consume, it’s still far fewer ports purchased (HBAs, switches) as workloads migrate to public cloud versus private data centers.

The Ephemeral Data Center

In enterprise datacenters, most operations are what I would call traditional virtualization. And that is dominated by VMware’s vSphere. However, vSphere isn’t a private cloud. According to NIST, to be a private cloud you need to be self service, multi-tenant, programmable, dynamic, and show usage. That ain’t vSphere.

For VMware’s vSphere, I believe Fibre Channel is the hands down best storage platform. vSphere likes very static block storage, and Fibre Channel is great at providing that. Everything is configured by IT staff, a few things are automated though Fibre Channel configurations are still done mostly by hand.

Probably the biggest difference between traditional virtualization (i.e. VMware vSphere) and private cloud is the self-service aspect. This also makes it a very dynamic environment. Developers, DevOpsers, and overall consumers of IT resources configure spin-up and spin-down their own resources. This leads to a very, very dynamic environment.


Endpoints are far more ephemeral, as demonstrated here by Mr Mittens.

Where we used to deal with virtual machines as everlasting constructs (pets), we’re moving to a more ephemeral model (cattle). In Netflix’s infrastructure, the average lifespan of a virtual machine is 36 hours. And compared to virtual machines, containers (such as Docker containers) tend to live for even shorter periods of time. All of this means a very dynamic environment, and that requires self-service portals and automation.

And one thing we’re not used to in the Fibre Channel world is a dynamic environment.

scaredgifA SAN administrator at the thought of automated zoning and zonesets

Virtual machines will need to attach to block storage on the fly, or they’ll rely on other types of storage, such as container images, retrieved from an object store, and run on a local file system. For these reasons, Fibre Channel is not usually a consideration for Docker, OpenStack (though there is work on Fibre Channel integration), and very dynamic, ephemeral workloads.


Block storage isn’t growing, at least not at the pace that object storage is. Object storage is becoming the de-facto way to store the deluge of unstructured data being stored. Object storage consumption is growing at 25% per year according to IDC, while traditional RAID revenues seem to be contracting.

Making it RAIN


In order to handle the immense scale necessary, storage is moving from RAID to RAIN. RAID is of course Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks, and RAIN is Redundant Array of Inexpensive Nodes. RAID-based storage typically relies on controllers and shelves. This is a scale-up style approach. RAIN is a scale-out approach.

For these huge scale storage requirements, such as Hadoop’s HDFS, Ceph, Swift, ScaleIO, and other RAIN handle the exponential increase in storage requirements better than traditional scale-up storage arrays. And primarily these technologies are using IP connectivity/Ethernet as the node-to-node and node-to-client communication, and not Fibre Channel. Fibre Channel is great for many-to-one communication (many initiators to a few storage arrays) but is not great at many-to-many meshing.

Ethernet and Fibre Channel

It’s been widely regarded in many circles that Fibre Channel is a higher performance protocol than say, iSCSI. That was probably true in the days of 1 Gigabit Ethernet, however these days there’s not much of a difference between IP storage and Fibre Channel in terms of latency and IOPS. Provided you don’t saturate the link (neither handles eliminates congestion issues when you oversaturate a link) they’re about the same, as shown in several tests such as this one from NetApp and VMware.

Fibre Channel is currently at 16 Gigabit per second maximum. Ethernet is 10, 40, and 100, though most server connections are currently at 10 Gigabit, with some storage arrays being 40 Gigabit. Iin 2016 Fibre Channel is coming out with 32 Gigabit Fibre Channel HBAs and switches, and Ethernet is coming out with 25 Gigabit Ethernet interfaces and switches. They both provide nearly identical throughput.

Wait, what?

But isn’t 32 Gigabit Fibre Channel faster than 25 Gigabit Ethernet? Yes, but barely.

  • 25 Gigabit Ethernet raw throughput: 3125 MB/s
  • 32 Gigabit Fibre Channel raw throughput: 3200 MB/s

Do what now?

32 Gigabit Fibre Channel isn’t really 32 Gigabit Fibre Channel. It actually runs at about 28 Gigabits per second. This is a holdover from the 8/10 encoding in 1/2/4/8 Gigabit FC, where every Gigabit of speed brought 100 MB/s of throughput (instead of 125 MB/s like in 1 Gigabit Ethernet). When FC switched to 64/66 encoding for 16 Gigabit FC, they kept the 100 MB/s per gigabit, and as such lowered the speed (16 Gigabit FC is really 14 Gigabit FC). This concept is outlined here in this screencast I did a while back. 16 Gigabit Fibre Channel is really 14 Gigabit Fibre Channel. 32 Gigabit Fibre Channel is 28 Gigabit Fibre Channel.

As a result, 32 Gigabit Fibre Channel is only about 2% faster than 25 Gigabit Ethernet. 128 Gigabit Fibre Channel (12800 MB/s) is only 2% faster than 100 Gigabit Ethernet (12500 MB/s).

Ethernet/IP Is More Flexible

In the world of bare metal server to storage array, and virtualization hosts to storage array, Fibre Channel had a lot of advantages over Ethernet/IP. These advantages included a fairly easy to learn distributed access control system, a purpose-built network designed exclusively to carry storage traffic, and a separately operated fabric.  But those advantages are turning into disadvantages in a more dynamic and scaled-out environment.

In terms of scaling, Fibre Channel has limits on how big a fabric can get. Typically it’s around 50 switches and a couple thousand endpoints. The theoretical maximums are higher (based on the 24-bit FC_ID address space) but both Brocade and Cisco have practical limits that are much lower. For the current (or past) generations of workloads, this wasn’t a big deal. Typically endpoints numbered in the dozens or possibly hundreds for the large scale deployments. With a large OpenStack deployment, it’s not unusual to have tens of thousands of virtual machines in a large OpenStack environment, and if those virtual machines need access to block storage, Fibre Channel probably isn’t the best choice. It’s going to be iSCSI or NFS. Plus, you can run it all on a good Ethernet fabric, so why spend money on extra Fibre Channel switches when you can run it all on IP? And IP/Ethernet fabrics scale far beyond Fibre Channel fabrics.

Another issue is that Fibre Channel doesn’t play well with others. There’s only two vendors that make Fibre Channel switches today, Cisco and Brocade (if you have a Fibre Channel switch that says another vendor made it, such as IBM, it’s actually a re-badged Brocade). There are ways around it in some cases (NPIV), though you still can’t mesh two vendor fabrics reliably.


Pictured: Fibre Channel Interoperability Mode

And personally, one of my biggest pet peeves regarding Fibre Channel is the lack of ability to create a LAG to a host. There’s no way to bond several links together to a host. It’s all individual links, which requires special configurations to make a storage array with many interfaces utilize them all (essentially you zone certain hosts).

None of these are issues with Ethernet. Ethernet vendors (for the most part) play well with others. You can build an Ethernet Layer 2 or Layer 3 fabric with multiple vendors, there are plenty of vendors that make a variety of Ethernet switches, and you can easily create a LAG/MCLAG to a host.


My name is MCLAG and my flows be distributed by a deterministic hash of a header value or combination of header values.

What About FCoE?

FCoE will share the fate of Fibre Channel. It has the same scaling, multi-node communication, multi-vendor interoperability, and dynamism problems as native Fibre Channel. Multi-hop FCoE never really caught on, as it didn’t end up being less expensive than Fibre Channel, and it tended to complicate operations, not simplify them. Single-hop/End-host FCoE, like the type used in Cisco’s popular UCS server system, will continue to be used in environments where blades need Fibre Channel connectivity. But again, I think that need has peaked, or will peak shortly.

Fibre Channel isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, just like Unix servers can still be found in many datacenters. But I think we’ve just about hit the peak. The workload requirements have shifted. It’s my belief that for the current/older generation of workloads (bare metal, traditional/pet virtualization), Fibre Channel is the best platform. But as we transition to the next generation of platforms and applications, the needs have changed and they don’t align very well with Fibre Channel’s strengths.

It’s an IP world now. We’re just forwarding packets in it.



Ethernet over Fibre Channel

Since the 80’s, Ethernet has dominated the networking world. The LAN, the WAN, and the MAN are all now dominated by Ethernet links. FIDDI, HIPPI, ATM, Frame Relay, they’ve all gone by the wayside. But there is one protocol that has stuck around to run alongside Ethernet, and that’s Fibre Channel. While Fibre Channel has mostly sat in the shadow of Ethernet, relegated to only storage traffic, it’s now poised to overtake Ethernet in the battle for the LAN. And the way that Fibre Channel is taking on Ethernet is with Ethernet over Fibre Channel.


Suck it, Metcalfe

While Ethernet has enjoyed tremendous popularity, it has several (debilitating) limitations. For one, forwarding is haunted the possibility of a loop, and Spanning Tree Protocol is required to keep a watchful eye. Unfortunately, STP is almost as bad as a loop, with the ample opportunity for misconfigurations (rouge root bridges) and other shenanigans.  TRILL, a Layer 2 overlay for Ethernet that allows multi-pathing, hasn’t found its way into a commercial product yet, and its derivatives (FabricPath from Cisco and VCS from Brocade) haven’t seen much in the way of adoption.

Rathern than pile fix upon fix on Ethernet, SAN administrators (known for being the loose canons of the data center) are making a bold push to take over LAN networks as well… and they’re winning.

The T17 committe had been established by the INCITS, which is the standards body that is responsible for Fibre Channel, FCoE, and now EoFC. The T17 is responsible for all the specifications around EoFC, and in particular the interface between the two.

We really have a lot of advantages over Ethernet in terms of topology and forwarding. For one, we’re a lossless network, providing a lot more reliability than a traditional Ethernet network. We also have multi-pathing built in with FSPF routing, while still providing Layer 2 adjacencies that are still required by the old crusty crapplications that are still on people’s networks, somehow.” -John Etherman, T17 committee chair.

They’ve made a lot of progress in a relatively short time, from ironing out the specifications to getting ASICs spun, and their work is bearing fruit. Products are starting to ship, and several marquee clients have announced fabrics built entirely with EoFC.

A Day in the life of a EoFC Frame

To keep compatibility with older Ethernet/TCP/IP stacks, CNHs (Converged Network HBAs) provide Ethernet interfaces to the host operating system. The frame is formed by the host, and the CNH encapsulates the Ethernet frame into a Fibre Channel frame. Since standard Ethernet MTU is only 1500 bytes, they fit quite nicely into the maximum 2048 byte Fibre Channel frame. The T13 working group also provides specifications for Jumbo Ethernet frames up to 9216 bytes, by either fragmenting the frame into multiple 2048-byte Fibre Channel frames,

WWPNs are derived from the MAC addresses that the hosts sees. Since MAC addresses aren’t a full 64-bits, the T17 working group has allocated the 80:08 prefix to EoFC. So if your MAC address was 00:25:B6:01:23:45, the WWPN would be 80:08:00:25:B6:01:23:45. This keeps the EoFC WWPNs out of the range of the initiators (starting with 1 or 2) and targets (starting with 5).


FC_IDs are assigned to the WWPNs on a transitory basis, and are what the Fibre Channel headers have in terms of source/destination addresses. When the Fibre Channel frame reaches its destination NX_Port (Node LAN port), the Ethernet frame is de-encapsulated from the Fibre Channel frame, and the hosts networking stack takes care of the rest. From a host’s perspective, it has no idea the transport is Fibre Channel.


The biggest benefit to EoFC is the lossless network that Fibre Channel provides. Since the majority of traffic is East/West in modern data center workloads, busy hosts can suffer from an incast problem, where the buffers can be overloaded as a single 10 Gigabit link receives packets from multiple sources, all operating at 10 Gigabit. Fibre Channel transport provides port to port flow control, and can ensure that nothing gets dropped.


Configuration of EoFC is fairly straightforward. I’ve got access to a new Nexus 8008, with a 32 Gbit EoFC line card that I’ve connected to a Cisco C-series server with a CNH.

nexus1# feature eofc
EoFC feature checked out
Loading Ethernet module...
Loading Spanning Tree module...
Loading LLDP...
Grace period license remaining: 110 days

nexus1# vlan 10
nexus1(vlandb)# vsan 10
nexus1(vsandb)# 10 name Storage-A
nexus1(vsandb)# vsan 1010
nexus1(vsandb)# vsan 1010 name Ethernet transport
nexus1(vsandb)# eofc vlan 10
nexus1(vsandb)# interface veth1
nexus1(vif)# switchport
nexus1(vif)# switchport mode access
nexus1(vif)# switchport access vlan 10
nexus1(vif)# bind interface fc1/1
nexus1(vif)# no shut
nexus1(vif)# int fc1/1
nexus1(if)# switchport mode F
nexus1(if)# switchport allowed vsan 10,1010
nexus1(if)# no shut 

Doing a show interface shows me that my connection is live.

 nexus1# show interface ethernet veth1 
 vEthernet1 is up
 Hardware: 1000/10000 Ethernet, address: 000d.ece7.df48 (bia 000d.ece7.df48)
 Attached to: fc1/1 (pWWN: 80:08:00:0D:EC:E7:DF:48)
 MTU 1500 bytes, BW 10000000 Kbit, DLY 10 usec,
 reliability 255/255, txload 1/255, rxload 1/255
 Encapsulation EoFC/ARPA
 Port mode is EoFC
 full-duplex, 32 Gb/s, media type is 1/2/4/8/16/32g
 Beacon is turned off
 Input flow-control is off, output flow-control is off
 Rate mode is dedicated
 Switchport monitor is off
 Last link flapped 09:03:57
 Last clearing of "show interface" counters never
 30 seconds input rate 2376 bits/sec, 0 packets/sec
 30 seconds output rate 1584 bits/sec, 0 packets/sec
 Load-Interval #2: 5 minute (300 seconds)
 input rate 1.58 Kbps, 0 pps; output rate 792 bps, 0 pps
 0 unicast packets 10440 multicast packets 0 broadcast packets
 10440 input packets 11108120 bytes
 0 jumbo packets 0 storm suppression packets
 0 runts 0 giants 0 CRC 0 no buffer
 0 input error 0 short frame 0 overrun 0 underrun 0 ignored
 0 watchdog 0 bad etype drop 0 bad proto drop 0 if down drop
 0 input with dribble 0 input discard
 0 Rx pause
 0 unicast packets 20241 multicast packets 105 broadcast packets
 20346 output packets 7633280 bytes
 0 jumbo packets
 0 output errors 0 collision 0 deferred 0 late collision
 0 lost carrier 0 no carrier 0 babble
 0 Tx pause
 1 interface resets

Speeds and Feeds

EoFC is backwards compatible with 1/2/4/8 and 16 Gigabit Fibre Channel, but it’s really expected to take off with the newest 32/128 Gbit interfaces that are being released from vendors like Cisco, Juniper, and Brocade. Brocade, QLogix, Intel, and Emulex are all expected to provide CNHs operating at 32 Gbit speeds, with 32 and 128 Gbit interfaces on line cards and fixed switches to operate as ISLs.

Nexus 8009

Nexus 8008: 384 ports of 32 Gbit EoFC

Switches are already shipping from Cisco and Brocade, with Juniper to release their newest QFC line before the end of Q2.

Top 5 Reasons The Evaluator Group Screwed Up

It’s been a while since the trainwreck of a “study” commissioned by Brocade and performed by The Evaluator Group,  but it’s still being discussed in various storage circles (and that’s not good news for Brocade). Some pretty much parroted the results, seemingly without reading the actual test. Then got all pissy when confronted about it.  I did a piece on my interpretations of the results, as did Dave Alexander of WWT and J Metz of Cisco. Our mutual conclusion can be best summed up with a single animated GIF.



But since a bit of time has passed, I’ve had time to absorb Dave and J’s opinions, as well as others, I’ve come up with a list of the Top 5 Reasons by The Evaluator Group Screwed Up. This isn’t the complete list, of course, but some of the more glaring problems. Let’s start with #1:

Reason #1: I Have No Idea What I’m Doing

Their hilariously bad conclusion to the higher variance in response times and higher CPU usage was that it was the cause of the software initiators. Except, they didn’t use software initiators. The had actually configured hardware initiators, and didn’t know it. Let that sink in: They’re charged with performing an evaluation, without knowing what they’re doing.

The Cisco UCS VIC 1240 hardware CNA’s were utilized.  Referring to them as software initiators caused some confusion. The Cisco VIC is a hardware initiator and we configured them with virtual HBAs. Evaluator Group has no knowledge of the internal architecture of the VIC or its driver.  Our commentary of the possible cause for higher CPU utilization is our opinion and further analysis would be required to pinpoint the specific root cause.

Of course, it wasn’t the software initiator. They didn’t use a software initiator, but they were so clueless, they didn’t know they’d actually used a hardware initiator. Without knowing how they performed their tests (since they didn’t publish their methodology) it’s purely speculation, but it looks like the problem was caused by congestion (from them architecting the UCS solution incorrectly).

Reason #2: They’re Hilariously Bad At Math.

They claimed FCoE required 50% more cables, based on the fact that there were 50% more cables in the FCoE solution than the FC solution. Which makes sense… except that the FC system had zero Ethernet.

That’s right, in the HP/Fibre Channel solution, each blade had absolutely zero Ethernet connectivity. In the Cisco UCS solution, every blade had full Ethernet and Fibre Channel connectivity.  None. Zilch. Why did they do that? Probably because had they included any network connectivity to the HP system, the cable count would have shifted to FCoE’s favor.  Let me state this again, because it’s astonishingly stupid: They claimed FCoE (which included Ethernet and FC connectivity) required more cables without including any network connectivity for the HP/FC system. 


Also, they made some power/cooling claims, despite the fact that the UCS solution didn’t require a separate FC switch (it’s capable of being a full-fledged Fibre Channel switch by itself), though the HP solution would have required a separate pair of Ethernet switches (which wasn’t included). So yeah, their math is a bit off. Had they done things, you know, correctly, the power, cooling, and cable count would have flipped in favor of FCoE.

Reason #3: UCS is Hard, You Guys!

They whinged about UCS being more difficult to setup. Anytime you’re dealing with unfamiliar technology, it’s natural that it’s going to be more difficult. However, they claimed that they had zero experience with HP as well (seriously, who at Brocade hired these guys?) How easy is UCS? Here is a video done from Amsterdam where a couple of Cisco techs added a new chassis and blade and had it booted up and running ESXi in less than 30 minutes from in the box to booted. Cisco UCS is different than other blade systems, but it’s also very easy (and very quick) to stand up. And keep in mind, the video I linked was done in Amsterdam, so they were probably baked   

Reason #4: It Contradicts Everyone Else’s Results (Especially those that know what they’re doing)

For the past couple of years, VMware and NetApp have been doing performance tests on various storage protocols. Here’s one from a few years ago, which includes (native) 4 and 8 Gbit Fibre Channel, 10 Gbit FCoE, 10 Gbit iSCSI, and 10 Gbit NFS. The conclusion? The protocol doesn’t much matter. They all came out about the same when normalized for bandwidth. The big difference is in the storage backend. At least they published their methodology (I’m looking at you, Evaluator Group). Here’s one from Demartek that shows a mixture of storage protocols saturating 10 Gbit Ethernet. Again, the limitation is only the link speed itself, not the protocol. And again, again, Demartek published their methodology.

Reason #5: How Did They Set Everything Up? Magic!

Most of the time with these commissioned reports, the details of how it’s configured are given so that the results can be reproduced and audited. How did the Evaluator Group set up their environment?


As far as I can tell, magic. There’s several things they could have easily gotten wrong with the UCS setup, and given their mistake about software/hardware initiators, quite likely. They didn’t even mention which storage vendor they used.

So there you have it. A bit of a re-hash, but hey, it was a dumb report. The upside though is that it did provide me with some entertainment.

Fibre Channel: The Heart of New SDN Solutions

From Juniper to Cisco to VMware, companies are spouting up new SDN solutions. Juniper’s Contrail, Cisco’s ACI, VMware’s NSX, and more are all vying to be the next generation of data center networking. What is surprising, however, is what’s at the heart of these new technologies.

Is it VXLAN, NVGRE, Openflow? Nope. It’s Fibre Channel.


If you think about it, it makes sense. Fibre Channel has been doing fabrics since before we ever called Ethernet fabrics, well, fabrics. And this isn’t the first time that Fibre Channel has shown up in unusual places. There’s a version of Fibre Channel that runs inside certain airplanes, including jet fighters like the F-22.


Keep the skies safe from FCoE (sponsored by the Evaluator Group)

New generation of switches have been capable of Data Center Bridging (DCB), which enables Fibre Channel over Ethernet. These chips are also capable of doing native Fibre Channel So rather than build complicated VPLS fabrics or routed networks, various data center switching companies are leveraging the inherent Fibre Channel capabilities of the merchant silicon and building Fibre Channel-based underlay networks to support an IP-based overlay.

Buffer-to-buffer (B2B) credit system and losslessness of Fibre Channel, plus the new 32/128 Gigabit interfaces with the newest Fibre Channel standard are all being leveraged for these underlays. I find it surprising that so many companies are adopting this, you’d think it’d be just Brocade. But Cisco, Arista (who notoriously shunned FCoE) and Juniper are all on board with new or announced SDN offerings that are based mostly or in part on Fibre Channel.

However, most of the switches from various vendors are primarily Ethernet today, so the 10/40 Gigabit interfaces can run FCoE until more switches are available with native FC interfaces. Of course, these switches will still be required to have a number of native Ethernet ports in order to connect to border networks that aren’t part of the overlay network, so there will be still a need for Ethernet. But it seems the market has spoken, and they want Fibre Channel.


CCIE DC Attempt #1: Did Not Pass

Earlier this month, I drove my rental car up to Cisco’s infamous 150 Tasman Drive after being stuck on the 101 for about an hour. I checked in, sat down, and dug into my very first CCIE lab attempt. A bit over 8 hours later, I knew I didn’t pass, but I got a good feel for what the lab is like.

My preparation for the exam had been very unbalanced, working extensively with some parts of the blueprint, while other aspects of the blueprint I hadn’t really touched in over a year. So I was not surprised at all to see the “FAIL” notice when I got my score.

The good news is that I think with the right preparation on my weak parts, I can pass on the next attempt (which I haven’t yet scheduled, but will soon).

The following animated GIF is what it’s like to do parts of a CCIE lab exam that you haven’t prepared for.







How It Feels Studying for my CCIE DC Lab


First Call I Made When I First Heard About “Gen5 Fibre Channel”


Is The OS Relevant Anymore?

I started out my career as a condescending Unix administrator, and while I’m not a Unix administrator anymore, I’m still quite condescending. In the past, I’ve run data centers based on Linux, FreeBSD, Solaris, as well as administered Windows boxes, OpenBSD and NetBSD, and even NeXTSTEP (best desktop in the 90s).

In my role as a network administrator (and network instructor), this experience has become invaluable. Why? One reason is that most networking devices these days have an open sourced based operating system as the underlying OS.

And recently, I got into a discussion on Twitter (OK, kind of a twitter fight, but it’s all good with the other party) about the underlying operating systems for these network devices, and their relevance. My position? The underlying OS is mostly irrelevant.

First of all, the term OS can mean a great many things. In the context of this post, when I talk about OS I’m referring to only the underlying OS. That’s the kernel, libraries, command line, drivers, networking stack, and file system. I’m not referring to the GUI stack (GNOME, KDE, or Unity for the Unixes, Mac OS X’s GUI stack, Win32 for Window) or other types of stack such as a web application stack like LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP).

Most routers and MLS (multi-layer switches, swtiches that can route as fast as they can switch) run an open source operating system as its control plane. The biggest exception is of course Cisco’s IOS, which is proprietary as hell. But IOS has reached its limits, and Cisco’s NX-OS, which runs on Cisco’s next-gen Nexus switches, is based on Linux. Arista famously runs Linux (Fedora Core) and doesn’t hide it from the users (which allows it to do some really cool things). Juniper’s Junos is based on FreeBSD.

In almost every case of router and multi-layer switch however, the operating system doesn’t forward any packets. That is all handled in specialized silicon. The operating system is only responsible for the control plane, running processes like an OSPF, spanning-tree, BGP, and other services to decide on a set of rules for forwarding incoming packets and frames. These rules, sometimes called a FIB (Forwarding Information Base), are programmed into the hardware forwarding engines (such as the much-used Broadcom Trident chipset). These forwarding engines do the actual switching/routing. Packets don’t hit the general x86 CPU, they’re all handled in the hardware. The control plane (running as various coordinated processes on top of a one of these open source operating systems) tells the hardware how to handle packets.

So the only thing the operating system does (other than the occasional punted packet) is tell the hardware how to handle traffic the general CPU will never see. This is the way it has to be, because x86 hardware can’t scale nearly as well as special purpose silicon can, especially considering power and cooling consumption. Latency is way lower as well.

In fact, hardware wise, most vendors (Juniper, Arista, Huawei, Alcatel-Lucent ,etc.) have been using the exact same chip in their latest switches. So the differentiation isn’t the silicon. Is the differentiation the underlying operating system? No, it makes little difference for the end user. They are instead a (mostly) invisible platform for which the services (CLI, APIs, routing protocols, SDN hooks, etc.) are built upon. Networking vendors are in the middle of a transition into software developers (and motherboard gluers).

All you need to create a 10 Gigabit Switch

The biggest holdout in networking devices and non-open source is of course, Cisco’s IOS, which is proprietary as hell. Still, the future for Cisco appears to be NX-OS running on all of the Nexus switches, and that’s based on Linux.

Let’s also take a look at networking devices where the underlying OS may actually touch the data plane, and a genre in which I’m very much acquatned with: Load balancers (and no, I’m not calling them Application Delivery Controllers).

F5’s venerable BIG-IPs used to be based on BSDI initially (a years-dead BSD), and then switched to Linux. CoyotePoint was based on FreeBSD, and is now based on NetBSD. Cisco’s ACE is based on Linux (although Cisco’s shitty CSS runs proprietary vxWorks, but it’s not shitty because of vxWorks). Most of the other vendors are based on Linux. However, the baseline operating system makes very little difference these days.

Most load balancers have SSL offload (to push the CPU-intensive asymmetric encryption onto a specialized processor). This is especially important as we move to 2048-bit SSL certificates. Some load balancers have Layer 2/3/4 silicon (either ASICs or FPGAs, which are flexible ASICs) to help out with forwarding traffic, and hit general CPUs (usually x86) for the Layer 7 parsing. So does the operating system touch the traffic going through a load balancer? Usually, not always, and well, it depends.

So with Cisco on Linux and Juniper with FreeBSD, would either company benefit from switching to a different OS? Does either company enjoy a competitive advantage by having chose their respective platform? No. In fact, switching platforms would likely be a colossal waist of time and resources. The underlying operating systems just provide some common services to run the networking services that program the line cards and silicon.

When I brought up Arista and their Fedora Core-based control plane which they open up to customers, here’s what someone (a BSD fan) described Fedora as: “Inconsistent and convoluted”, “building/testing/development as painful”, and “hasn’t a stable file system after 10 years”.

Reading that statement, you’d think that dealing with Fedora is a nightmare. That’s not remotely true. Some of that statement is exaggeration (and you could find specific examples to support that statement for any operating system) and some of it is fantasy. No stable file system? Linux has had several file systems, including ext2, ext3, ext4, XFS, and more for a while, and they’ve been solid.

In a general sense, I think the operating system is less relevant than it used to be. Take OpenBSD for example. It’s well deserved reputation for security is legendary. Still, would there be any advantage today to running your web application stack on OpenBSD? Would your site be any more secure? Probably not. Not because OpenBSD is any less secure today than it was a while ago, quite the opposite. It’s because the attack vectors have changed. The attacks are hitting the web stack and other pieces rather than the underlying operating system. Local exploits aren’t that big of deal because few systems let anyone but a few users log in anyway. The biggest attacks lately have come from either SQL injection or attacks on desktop operating systems (mostly Windows, but now recently Apple as well).

If you’re going to expose a server directly to the Internet on a DMZ or (gasp) without any firewall at all, OpenBSD is an attractive choice. But that doesn’t happen much anymore. Servers are typically protected by layers of firealls, IPS/IDS, and load balancers.

Would Android be more successful or less successful if Google switched from Linux as the underpinnings to one of the BSDs? Would it be more secure if they switched to OpenBSD? No, and it would it be an entirely wasted effort. It’s not likely any of the security benefits of OpenBSD would translate into the Dalvik stack that is the heart of Android.

As much as fanboys/girls don’t want to admit it, it’s likely the number one reason people choose an OS is familiarity. I tend to go with Linux (although I have FreeBSD and OpenBSD-based VMs running in my infrastructure) because I’m more familiar with it. For my day to day uses, Linux or FreeBSD would both work. There’s not a competitive advantage either have over each other in that regard. Linux outright wins in some cases, such as virtualization (BSDs have been very behind in that technology, though they run fine as guests), but for most stuff it doesn’t matter. I use FreeNAS, which is FreeBSD based, but I don’t care what it runs. I’d use FreeNAS if it were based on Linux, OpenBSD, or whatever.  (Because it’s based on FreeBSD, FreeNAS does run ZFS, which for some uses is better than any of the Linux file systems, although I don’t run FreeNAS’s ZFS since it’s missing encryption).

So fanboy/girlism aside, for the most part today, choice of an operating system isn’t the huge deal it may once have been. People succeed with using Linux, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD, Windows, and more as the basis for their platforms (web stack, mobile stack, network device OS, etc.).

It May Already Be Too Late!

I’m very enthusiastic about anything that makes corporate IT suck less (such as BYOD, Bring Your Own Device), and despite not working for any company other than myself, I’m still quite sensitive to things that increase IT suckitude. And I’ve found the later recently in a blog post over at Juniper called “BYOD Isn’t As Scary As You Think, Mr. or Ms. CIO“.

The title of the article seems to say that BYOD isn’t scary for corporate environments. But the article reads as if the author intended to induce a panic attack.

The article is frustrating for a couple of reasons. One, CIOs might take that shit seriously, and while huffing on a paper bag because of panic-induced hyperventilation, might fire off a new bone-headed security policy. One would hope that someone at the CIO level would know better, but I’ve known CIOs that don’t.

Two, one of the great things about smart phones is the lack of shitty security products on them. And you want to go ruin that? If I’m bringing my own device, with saucy texts from my supermodel girlfriends, I’m not likely to let any company put anything on my phone.

Why Ensign Ro, those are not bridge-duty appropriate texts you’re sending to Commander Data

Three, of the possible security implications with smart phones, only a couple of edge cases would even be solved by the software that Juniper offers as a solution. For instance, the threat of a rogue employee. You used to be able to tell if you were let go because your passwords didn’t work, now you could know when your phone reboots and wipes. But how do you know they’ve gone rogue? Why, monitor photos and texts on that employee’s phone of course.

Wait, what?

You can monitor emails, texts, and camphone images? With Junos Pulse mobile security, you can.

Hi there Brett Favre, Big Brother here. We, uhh, couldn’t help but notice that photo you texted from your personal phone that we are always monitoring…

This is just making corporate security, which already sucks, even worse. It’s a mentality that is lose-lose. The IT organization would get additional complexity for very little gain, and the users would get more hindrance, little security, and a huge invasion of privacy. Maybe I’m alone in this, but if any company offered me a job and required my personal device be subjected to this, the compensation package would need to include a mega-yacht to make it worthwhile.

I’ve been self employed since 2007, and having been free of corporate laptop builds, moldy email systems, and maniacal IT managers, I can say this: Being independent is 30% about calling the shots on my own schedule, 70% is calling the shots on my own equipment.

“That’s a very attractive offer, however judging from that crusty-ass laptop you have an the bizarre no-Mac policy by your brain-dead IT head/security officer, working for your company would eat away at my soul and cause me to activate the genesis device out of frustration.”

I really like Juniper, I do. But one of the things you do with friends is call them on their shit. I do it with Cisco all the time, now it’s Juniper’s turn.