Network Virtualization

[This post was written with Bruce Davie]

Network virtualization has been around in some form or other for many years, but it seems of late to be getting more attention than ever. This is especially true in SDN circles, where we frequently hear of network virtualization as one of the dominant use cases of SDN. Unfortunately, as with much of SDN, the discussion has been muddled, and network virtualization is being both conflated with SDN and described as a direct result of it. However, SDN is definitely not network virtualization. And network virtualization does not require SDN.

No doubt, part of the problem is that there is no broad consensus on what network virtualization is. So this post is an attempt to construct a reasonable working definition of network virtualization. In particular, we want to distinguish network virtualization from some related technologies with which it is sometimes confused, and explain how it relates to SDN.

A good place to start is to take a step back and look at how virtualization has been defined in computing. Historically, virtualization of computational resources such as CPU and memory has allowed programmers (and applications) to be freed from the limitations of physical resources. Virtual memory, for example, allows an application to operate under the illusion that it has dedicated access to a vast amount of contiguous memory, even when the physical reality is that the memory is limited, partitioned over multiple banks, and shared with other applications. From the application’s perspective, the abstraction of virtual memory is almost indistinguishable from that provided by physical memory, supporting the same address structure and memory operations.

As another example, server virtualization presents the abstraction of a virtual machine, preserving all the details of a physical machine: CPU cycles, instruction set, I/O, etc.

A key point here is that virtualization of computing hardware preserves the abstractions that were presented by the resources being virtualized. Why is this important? Because changing abstractions generally means changing the programs that want to use the virtualized resources. Server virtualization was immediately useful because existing operating systems could be run on top of the hypervisor without modification. Memory virtualization was immediately useful because the programming model did not have to change.

Virtualization and the Power of New Abstractions

Virtualization should not change the basic abstractions exposed to workloads, however it nevertheless does introduce new abstractions. These new abstractions represent the logical enclosure of the entity being virtualized (for example a process, a logical volume, or a virtual machine). It is in these new abstractions that the real power of virtualization can be found.

So while the most immediate benefit of virtualization is the ability to multiplex hardware between multiple workloads (generally for the efficiency, fault containment or security), the longer term impact comes from the ability of the new abstractions to change the operational paradigm.

Server virtualization provides the most accessible example of this. The early value proposition of hypervisor products was simply server consolidation. However, the big disruption that followed server virtualization was not consolidation but the fundamental change to the operational model created by the introduction of the VM as a basic unit of operations.

This is a crucial point. When virtualizing some set of hardware resources, a new abstraction is introduced, and it will become a basic unit of operation. If that unit is too fine grained (e.g. just exposing logical CPUs) the impact on the operational model will be limited. Get it right, however, and the impact can be substantial.

As it turns out, the virtual machine was the right level of abstraction to dramatically impact data center operations. VMs embody a fairly complete target for the things operational staff want to do with servers: provisioning new workloads, moving workloads, snapshotting workloads, rolling workloads back in time, etc.

Quick Recap:

  • virtualization exposes a logical view of some resource decoupled from the physical substrate without changing the basic abstractions.
  • virtualization also introduces new abstractions – the logical container of virtualized resources.
  • it is the manipulation of these new abstractions that has the potential to change the operational paradigm.
  • the suitability of the new abstraction for simplifying operations is important.

Given this as background, let’s turn to network virtualization.

Network Virtualization, Then and Now

As noted above, network virtualization is an extremely broad and overloaded term that has been in use for decades. Overlays, MPLS, VPNs, VLANs, LISP, Virtual routers, VRFs can all be thought of as network virtualization of some form. An earlier blog post by Bruce Davie (here) touched on the relationship between these concepts and network virtualization as we’re defining it here. The key point of that post is that when employing one of the aforementioned network virtualization primitives, we’re virtualizing some aspect of the network (a LAN segment, an L3 path, an L3 forwarding table, etc.) but rarely a network in its entirety with all its properties.

For example, if you use VLANs to virtualize an L2 segment, you don’t get virtualized counters that stay in sync when a VM moves, or a virtual ACL that keeps working wherever the VM is located. For those sorts of capabilities, you need some other mechanisms.

To put it in the context of the previous discussion, traditional network virtualization mechanisms don’t provide the most suitable operational abstractions. For example, provisioning new workloads or moving workloads still requires operational overhead to update the network state, and this is generally a manual process.

Modern approaches to network virtualization try and address this disconnect. Rather than providing a bunch of virtualized components, network virtualization today tries to provide a suitable basic unit of operations. Unsurprisingly, the abstraction is of a “virtual network”.

To be complete, a virtual network should both support the basic abstractions provided by physical networks today (L2, L3, tagging, counters, ACLs, etc.) as well as introduce a logical abstraction that encompasses all of these to be used as the basis for operation.

And just like the compute analog, this logical abstraction should support all of the operational niceties we’ve come to expect from virtualization: dynamic creation, deletion, migration, configuration, snapshotting, and roll-back.

Cleaning up the Definition of Network Virtualization

Given the previous discussion, we would characterize network virtualization as follows:

  • Introduces the concept of a virtual network that is decoupled from the physical network.
  • The virtual networks don’t change any of the basic abstractions found in physical networks.
  • The virtual networks are exposed as a new logical abstraction that can form a basic unit of operation (creation, deletion, migration, dynamic service insertion, snapshotting, inspection, and so on).

Network Virtualization is not SDN

SDN is a mechanism, and network virtualization is a solution. It is quite possible to have network virtualization solution that doesn’t use SDN, and to use SDN to build a network that has no virtualized properties.

SDN provides network virtualization in about the same way Python does – it’s a tool (and not a mandatory one). That said, SDN does have something to offer as a mechanism for network virtualization.

A simple way to think about the problem of network virtualization is that the solution must map multiple logical abstractions onto the physical network, and keep those abstractions consistent as both the logical and physical worlds change. Since these logical abstractions may reside anywhere in the network, this becomes a fairly complicated state management problem that must be enforced network-wide.

However, managing large amounts of states with reasonable consistency guarantees is something that SDN is particularly good at. It is no coincidence that most of the network virtualization solutions out there (from a variety of vendors using a variety of approaches) have a logically centralized component of some form for state management.

Wrapping Up

The point of this post was simply to provide some scaffolding around the discussion of network virtualization. To summarize quickly, modern concepts of network virtualization both preserve traditional abstractions and provide a basic unit of operations which is a (complete) virtual network. And that new abstraction should support the same operational abstractions as its computational analog.

While SDN provides a useful approach to building a network virtualization solution, it isn’t the only way. And lets not confuse tools with solutions.

Over the next few years, we expect to see a variety of mechanisms for implementing virtual networking take hold. Some hardware-based, some software-based, some using tunnels, others using tags, some relying more on traditional distributed protocols, others relying on SDN.

In the end, the market will choose the winning mechanism(s). In the meantime, let’s make sure we clarify the dialog so that informed decisions are possible.


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