Software-based routers on x86 servers are becoming reality

With stronger processing power and advanced software features, software-based routers are becoming a reality -- but only in some cases.

The $20 billion router market is poised for disruption by lower cost, more flexible software-based routers. Routing...

software and x86 hardware have simultaneously matured to the point where many routing applications can be performed in virtual appliances and do not require specialized ASIC-driven hardware.

The router market has long been dominated by specialized hardware-based platforms designed to maximize WAN performance. Earlier versions of software-based routing failed due to their lack of maturity and poor performance. The current generation of software router options benefits from the vastly improved processing and I/O capabilities of x86 servers.

Software-based routers aren't ready to replace all hardware routers -- especially not high-performance edge or core hardware. But some segments of the router market will be impacted, and software-based routers are becoming an important consideration for network designers.

Advances in software-based routers

The concept of software-based routers has been around for well over a decade. The latest versions of software-based routers have been hardened via years of experimentation and deployment. Open source communities, including Quagga and Brocade's Vyatta, have been developing software routing.

In addition, advances in server hardware performance mean that more routing functions are now in scope. For example, an Intel x86 processor can now handle up to 10 GB of traffic with a single core (with eight to 16 cores possible per server). Server hardware designers have worked with the networking community to deliver faster I/O and more efficient memory access.

SDN and NFV disaggregate the router

The technology migration towards SDN and network function virtualization (NFV) will accelerate the trends towards software routing. Software-defined networking and NFV disaggregate network functions, including routing, and allow them to run as virtual instances wherever the routing function is required. This disaggregation will take place in the data center (virtualized layer 3 functions), in the enterprise WAN and in the telecom service provider network.

Current software router solutions

A number of innovative suppliers have delivered software based routing solutions, including:

  • Brocade acquired software routing pioneer Vyatta in 2012. Brocade Vyatta has steadily improved performance of its routing code and has announced a number of significant customer wins. Brocade also has announced a partnership with Rackspace that lets cloud service customers buy Vyatta routing features as part of their package.
  • Adara Networks has announced three reference customers that have deployed its software-based routers to improve their WAN-to-data-center and data-center-to-data-center performance.
  • Vello has introduced VellOS, a flexible, software-based platform that supports (among other applications) software-based routing. Pacnet has deployed VellOS as a router to connect a number of its data centers over the WAN in Asia.
  • Netsocket offers its Virtual Edge software, which runs on standard x86 servers as a replacement for traditional CPE and branch routers. Features include security functionality (e.g., firewall) and an embedded Wi-Fi controller.
  • Pertino offers cloud-based routing functions as a monthly service. Users are provided the performance, reliability and security of premises-based VPN router solutions in a cloud with no hardware required on-site.

Incumbent providers with limited software-based versions of routers include HP, Cisco and Juniper. Another startup with potential to impact this market is Active Broadband, which offers broadband services management with incorporated software-based routing and control.

Traditional router solutions

The response of the incumbent router providers (e.g., Cisco) to the growing threat of software is to increasingly bundle advanced features into their router offerings.

These features include WAN acceleration, deep packet inspection, or DPI, and security features. For example, Cisco edge routers include both ASICs and x86 options to provide broad application flexibility. The incumbents maintain that hardware-specific solutions will continue to be required to meet the performance, latency, reliability and security requirements of their customers.

Other notable traditional (hardware-based) routers suppliers include Juniper, Alcatel-Lucent, Huawei, Brocade, Adtran and HP.

Software router recommendations: They won't replace all routing yet

Network and IT professionals should consider software-based routers for many specific routing requirements. Specific parts of the network that can be in scope for software routing include data center routing; branch routing; and specific edge routing functions, such as broadband remote access, or BRAS, and Diameter, in the telecom network.

Router functions that are not currently in the scope of software-based routing include high-performance edge and core routers and routers with support for highly specialized (non-IP, legacy) protocols.

The adoption of software-based routers will start slowly but will gather momentum with the increased adoption of SDN and NFV. Future generations of Intel processors will continue to improve performance and increase the market potential for software routing.

About the author:
Lee Doyle is a principal analyst at Doyle Research, which delivers quantitative and qualitative analysis, forecasting and market positioning advice to network and IT industry professionals. At Doyle Research, he researches the evolution of intelligent networks: SDN, OPEX and COTS.

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This was last published in March 2014

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