Flow Processing and the Rise of Commodity Network Hardware

By: 
Adam Greenhalgh, Felipe Huici, Mickael Hoerdt, Panagiotis Papadimitriou, Mark Handley, and Laurent Mathy
Appears in: 
CCR April 2009

The Internet has seen a proliferation of specialized middlebox devices that carry out crucial network functionality such as load balancing, packet inspection and intrusion detection. Recent advances in CPU power, memory, buses and network connectivity have turned commodity PC hardware into a powerful network platform. Furthermore, commodity switch technologies have recently emerged offering the possibility to control the switching of flows in a fine-grained manner. Exploiting these new technologies, we present a new class of network architectures which enables flow processing and forwarding at unprecedented flexibility and low cost.

Public Review By: 
Chadi Barakat

Network functionalities such as intrusion detection and load balancing are often implemented in specialized expensive middleboxes plugged inside the network. But, with the advent of commodity hardware and network switches, it is time to think about leveraging these new and cheap resources to support the same functionalities with lower cost without compromising efficiency. This is in the same spirit that software radio, virtual machines and virtual routers, have been introduced. The implementation of network functionalities in a kind of software environment has the further advantage of making them easily manageable and extendable to other applications (on software timescales).
The architecture introduced in this paper is called Flowstream. It proposes the implementation of network functionalities in virtualized machines/servers/routers run on top of commodity PCs. The flow of traffic among these virtual network entities is controlled by a programmable network switch implementing Openflow. The papers motivates the problem and discusses the architecture and its main components, plus a description of some potential applications. Even though there are no validation results, all reviewers appreciate the idea and agree on the fact that it will trigger discussions among CCR readers and the members of the networking community. This is a new research area that involves several tradeoffs (technical vs. economical, reliability vs. programmability) to be clearly understood and evaluated.
Programmable flow forwarding using Openflow has been already proposed in an operating system context as for example in the NOX architecture that has appeared as an editorial note in the CCR July 2008 issue. The novelty of this new paper is in combining flow forwarding and virtualization to replace network middlebox functionalities.