Monday, February 3, 2014

SDN Themes from ONUG - Let the ASIC go

Edit: I banged this out on the flight home from ONUG four months ago. Just found it in the drafts folder. ONUG's spring 2014 conference in New York is just 3 months away.

I was privileged to attend the Open Networking User Group (ONUG) Conference, ONUG Academy and mini Tech Field Day event hosted by JP Morgan Chase on October 29 and 30.
I attended at someone else's expense. Disclaimer.

ASICs came up a lot during these couple of days. Following are some ASIC-related things I heard and overheard at ONUG.

Sun Microsystems was overly attached to their SPARC processor (and so was I!) Folks inside Sun made efforts to derail Solaris x86, in order to protect their favorite server platform, and contributed to killing the company altogether. Sad story.

As good as your ASIC is, you'll never keep up with the performance of commodity chipsets. If the whitebox stuff is faster and still good enough to do the job, then it's probably going to win. It's certainly going to cost less. The proprietary ASIC may be better and have more features, but better is the enemy of good enough.

People used to route packets using general-purpose servers with multiple NICs. Cisco invented the networking market by introducing purpose-built equipment for moving packets between networks. The pendulum is swinging the other way now, as network functions become virtualized into general purpose servers, commodity network hardware and whitebox switching.

Lately (starting with the Nexus 3K) even Cisco is shipping switches with non-Cisco switching ASICs. This really says something about the state of the industry.

Assuming (as I do) that SDN overlays are the way of the future, they need to run on an physical underlay which don't require most of the features we're accustomed to seeing from major vendors data center offerings.

My friend Brent Salisbury is fond of saying that "OVSDB is the forwarding plane of SDN."

If Brent is right, then commodity switching ASICs are the underlay of SDN, because it would be ridiculous to pay for fancy feature support twice. Right now, that means everyone is talking about Broadcom's Trident II but Mellanox, Intel or others could launch a chip that changes the discussion that at any time.

All we need from the underlay is a simple IP fabric, and I can't see any reason to care where it comes from. More interesting features are the price and the interface to configuring the switch / programming the ASIC.

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