Switch used as container platform in software-based networking

Developers are building open technology on Linux to turn a top-of-rack white box switch into a services platform for software-based networking.

LAS VEGAS -- The move from hardware- to software-based networking in the data center is likely to result in more applications running in top-of-rack white box switches. Some of the open source technology that's likely to make that happen was highlighted at this month's Future:Net networking conference.

Programs running on a commodity top-of-rack (ToR) switch would likely be in the form of containers or microservices to avoid the overhead necessary in running a full-blown application. Presenters at the event, held at VMware's VMworld conference, focused on technology that could become the foundation for running the mini-programs on a switch's Linux-based network operating system.

Piling Layer 4-7 network services -- such as virtual firewalls, load balancers and WAN acceleration -- on a ToR switch would be "extremely important" to increase the value of software-based networking, said John Fruehe, a TechTarget contributor and independent networking analyst.

"If you're doing it at the top of rack, you're getting closer to the servers, and you can do a much better job of managing your traffic, managing your security and managing your applications," he said.

Technology that could become part of a container- or microservices-aware stack includes Cilium, eBPF, Envoy and Istio. Here are the definitions for the foundational technology:

  •  Extended Berkley Packet Filter, or eBPF, is a Linux kernel technology that provides a foundation for developers to build I/O modules and to load and unload the modules without rebooting the host.
  • Cilium uses eBPF to provide an efficient way to define and enforce network-layer and HTTP-layer security policies.
  • Envoy is a high-performance C++ distributed proxy and communication bus that runs alongside any application language or framework. It supports many load-balancing features, such as automatic retries, circuit breaking and global rate limiting.
  • Istio is an open platform for connecting, managing and securing microservices. It can be used to manage traffic flows between the services, enforce access policies and aggregate telemetry data.

Why migrate to software-based networking

The list is a sampling of what could become key technologies in separating networking software from the underlying hardware, a process known as disaggregation. Taking the intelligence out of hardware and placing it in software makes a network more agile and, therefore, more adaptable to changes in cloud computing environments.

Large companies that can afford to build technology not yet fully developed in the open source community are already heavy users of containers and microservices. Examples include major cloud providers, such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft. Those companies are expected to account for 62% of total container deployments by 2020, IDC analyst Gary Chen said during a Future:Net presentation.

Network operators are also at the cutting edge of technology development within software-based networking. AT&T, for example, completed this year a field trial of white box switches that carried customer traffic from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. The switches, which came from multiple vendors, ran AT&T's internally developed ToR packet network control software.

The investment major tech companies are making in trailblazing networking is expected to eventually find its way into products that mainstream enterprises can consume. Rather than buy networking hardware filled with proprietary technology, companies will someday have the option of buying components from multiple vendors to piece together a system tailored to buyers' individual needs.

The transition, however, could take as many as 10 years, Fruehe said. "It's going to happen slowly, but it's going to happen."

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