Data center network architectures are in a state of flux with new technologies driving some very significant and far-reaching changes.  The data center network of the future could be based on software-defined networking (SDN). Or, it could be IP.  Or it could be a hybrid.  Either way there will be new protocols to support and constant changes to improve security and support new applications.


When it comes to network equipment for this environment, more flexibility is better.  We’ve written before about how the Intel Ethernet FM6000 Series switch silicon has microcode upgradability for flexible support of new and changing network standards.  Now, we’d like to look at the flexibility built into our Seacliff Trail (SCT) top-of-rack switch customer reference design that features a high-performance processor.


The SeaCliff Trail Customer Reference Board was announced in Sept. 2012 at IDF 2012, and provides 48x10GbE and 4x40GbE connections using the Intel Ethernet FM6000 Series switch silicon. This customer evaluation board also comes with a two-core Gladden (Sandy Bridge class) Intel processor and the Cave Creek chipset, which provides, among other things, CPU off-load capability features such as encryption and decryption for security. The CPU subsystem that consists of the Gladden and Cave Creek is also known as the Crystal Forest Platform.


The Crystal Forest Platform is connected to the rest of the system using an AMC connector, allowing OEMs or ODMs to swap in a different AMC with a different Intel processor, depending on whether they need more performance or less power. An Intel processor in a switch opens up many possibilities. Another way to look at it is to think of it as a server with switching capabilities.


In legacy networking use cases, in which traditional L2 and L3 network stacks run on the CPU to provide autonomous functionality, Gladden can provide more than enough processing. Things get more interesting in an SDN environment: The separation of the data and control planes, in simple terms, means that the SDN controller can be moved to any host in the network with the switch being reduced to a data forwarding device with little need for a powerful CPU.


The Intel Ethernet FM6000 series switch silicon provides unparalleled SDN support at ultra low latencies and provides the data plane functionality.


In fairly large data centers, a single SDN controller may become inefficient, resulting in the need for a hierarchical solution involving a number of SDN controllers. Rather than using valuable servers in the data center, these tiered controllers can be run right on the switch with the power, familiar programming ecosystem and x86 instruction set provided by Gladden. Moving the controller to the switch CPU also provides lower latency in reacting to network changes as well as reduces the time to populate the pattern-matching tables of the switch silicon.


This may sound like we’re moving the switching intelligence back into the switch, but that’s not really the case.  The controller is still centralized because the processor is still separate from the switch silicon and the controller would only be needed on a few switches in the network.  The other switches could be equipped with simpler IA-based processors for network management, security or other non-controller applications.


Security is a critical factor forboth SDN and IP networks, and the Crystal Forest Platform gives switch designers some options for improved security.  In SDN environments, the control messaging between the controller, that can be anywhere in the data center, and the switch silicon may need to be encrypted for security purposes.In Seacliff Trail, Cave Creek can offload this from Gladden.  In an IP network, since the CPU is also a server, we can run security applications on the switch. For example, we may want to have an ACL or firewall application on the switch.


The possibilities for new functionality go on and on.  Building this power and performance into SCT means our customers have the opportunity to build something very differentiated that meets the needs of their customers.