Has OpenFlow failed? – Challenges and implementations

In truth, very few vendors have successfully implemented full capabilities of OpenFlow. OpenFlow provides way too much flexibility to programmers. It’s hard to make the hardware couple with that much power. A few vendors are able to deliver programmable ASICs like that such as NoviFlow, Corsa and Barefoot.

The reason for that comes from the nature of matching tables, a match table is implemented in memory. In a match table, we match on a field, say MAC address and we take an action, say forward the packet to port 1. The complexity comes when we want to match on multiple fields. Say we have a MAC table with N addresses, and an IP table with M addresses. The total size of my flow tables (memory) is M +N. Now if we want to execute the match on a single table, the size of those tables raises to M*N. Now imagine matching on multiple fields at the same time.

The multi-table aspect of OpenFlow, came on version 1.3, and it addresses the scalability problem of flow-tables. But now the challenge is how to provide a standard API via OpenFlow when different vendors have different table patterns?

The answer is we don’t. Rather, we adapt our OpenFlow version to each vendor in order to achieve our forwarding objective. Now, say we want to do a L3 forwarding – which means match on ip, then modify L2 addresses and forward to port N – one vendor might have put the modify action in the IP table, while other vendor might have grouped all actions in a group action later on.

OpenFlow became popular as a promise to bring innovation to the industry analogously as the x86 API brought innovation to computers. In truth, interoperability between vendors via OpenFlow has been rare, exactly because vendors have different implementations of OpenFlow. We’ve seen vertical stacks of software deliver SDN capabilities, but we haven’t seen interoperable solutions yet.

Last time I checked, ONOS, a great SDN controller, provided an abstraction to Openflow via the FlowObjective primitive, basically, an Objective is defined and then the OpenFlow drivers will match that objective to the hardware implementation. What that provides you is the ability to have a controller controlling multiple vendors. Vendors still need to write code as drivers but developers only have to write software once. Again the power of abstraction shows itself. There may be others out there, but I’m aware of a couple solutions for OpenFlow fabric such as BigSwitch and Trellis used in the CORD project that have successfully deployed stable solutions.

OpenFlow is not the answer to all your networking problems. The perfect abstraction for networking is the answer, but it does not exist. OpenFlow definitely succeed in bringing innovation to the networking industry. A few vendors like BigSwitch have built incredible solutions. and the OpenNetworkingFoundation has merged with the ON.LAB which may bring some more energy towards standardization of the protocol. The support from vendors has slowed down as vendors started generalizing the SDN definition, I will write more about it.

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I'm a Network Engineer with software development experiences. MSCS from Georgia Tech. CCNA certified. ONF-SDN certified.

Posted in SDN, Thoughts & theories

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