What Should Networks Do For Applications?
Posted: April 13, 2013
[This post was written by JR Rivers, Bruce Davie, and Martin Casado]
One of the important characteristics of network virtualization is the decoupling of network services from the underlying physical network. That decoupling is fundamental to the definition of network virtualization: it’s the delivery of network services independent of a physical network that makes those services virtual. Furthermore, many of the benefits of virtualization – such as the ability to move network services along with the workloads that need those services, without touching hardware – follow directly from this decoupling.
In spite of all the benefits that flow from decoupling virtual networks from the underlying physical network, we occasionally hear the concern that something has been lost by not having more direct interaction with the physical network. Indeed, we’ve come across a common intuition that applications would somehow be better off if they could directly control what the physical network is doing. The goal of this post is to explain why we disagree with this view.
It’s worth noting that this idea of getting networks to do something special for certain applications is hardly a novel idea. Consider the history of Voice over IP as an example. It wasn’t that long ago when using Ethernet for phone calls was a research project. Advances in the capacity of both the end points as well as the underlying physical network changed all of that and today VOIP is broadly utilized by consumers and enterprises around the world. Let’s break down the architecture that enabled VOIP.
A call starts with end-points (VOIP phones and computers) interacting with a controller that provisions the connection between them. In this case, provisioning involves authenticating end-points, finding other end-points, and ringing the other end. This process creates a logical connection between the end-points that overlays the physical network(s) that connect them. From there, communication occurs directly between the end-points. The breakthroughs that allowed Voice Over IP were a) ubiquitous end-points with the capacity to encode voice and communicate via IP and b) physical networks with enough capacity to connect the end-points while still carrying their normal workload.
Now, does VOIP need anything special from the network itself? Back in the 1990s, many people believed that to enable VOIP it would be necessary to signal into the network to request bandwidth for each call. Both ATM signalling and RSVP (the Resource Reservation Protocol) were proposed to address this problem. But by the time VOIP really started to gain traction, network bandwidth was becoming so abundant that these explicit communication methods between the endpoints and the network proved un-necessary. Some simple marking of VOIP packets to ensure that they didn’t encounter long queues on bottleneck links was all that was needed in the QoS department. Intelligent behavior at the end-points (such as adaptive bit-rate codecs) made the solution even more robust. Today, of course, you can make a VOIP call between continents without any knowledge of the underlying network.
These same principles have been applied to more interactive use cases such as web-based video conferencing, interactive gaming, tweeting, you name it. The majority of the ways that people interact electronically are based on two fundamental premises: a logical connection between two or more end-points and a high capacity IP network fabric.
Returning to the context of network virtualization, IP fabrics allow system architects to build highly scalable physical networks; the summarization properties of IP and its routing protocols allow the connection of thousands of endpoints without imposing the knowledge of each one on the core of the network. This both reduces the complexity (and cost) of the networking elements, and improves their ability to heal in the event that something goes wrong. IP networks readily support large sets of equal cost paths between end-points, allowing administrators to simultaneously add capacity and redundancy. Path selection can be based on a variety of techniques such as statistical selection (hashing of headers), Valiant Load Balancing, and automated identification of “elephant” flows.
Is anything lost if applications don’t interact directly with the network forwarding elements? In theory, perhaps, an application might be able to get a path that is more well-suited to its precise bandwidth needs if it could talk to the network. In practice, a well-provisioned IP network with rich multipath capabilities is robust, effective, and simple. Indeed, it’s been proven that multipath load-balancing can get very close to optimal utilization, even when the traffic matrix is unknown (which is the normal case). So it’s hard to argue that the additional complexity of providing explicit communication mechanisms for applications to signal their needs to the physical network are worth the cost. In fact, we’ll argue in a future post that trying to carefully engineer traffic is counter-productive in data centers because the traffic patterns are so unpredictable. Combine this with the benefits of decoupling the network services from the physical fabric, and it’s clear that a virtualization overlay on top of a well-provisioned IP network is a great fit for the modern data center.