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Recently, I participated in a webinar on software-defined networks (SDN) that reminded me of the importance of interoperability and performance testing for SDN.


Like many, it’s easy for me to get caught up in the features of SDN technology and the excitement of how it will change networking.  But that is only part of the story.


During the webinar, which was put on by network test leader Ixia*, industry analyst Jim Metzler reminded the audience that one of the potential market inhibitors for SDN, according to his surveys of IT leaders, is a fear that the technology will become proprietary.  Jim emphasized that a high degree of interoperability is needed for the technology to become mainstream.


This is why Intel® is committed to ensuring our Intel® Ethernet Switch FM6700 Family is fully interoperable with the SDN controllers from all manufacturers.


Most recently, our Barcelona OEM reference design was part of the Open Network Forum Plug Fest that took place at the Interop conference last spring. The test involved managing the switch using SDN controllers from a variety of vendors and demonstrating discovery, topology detection and fail-over functionality. 


Barcelona tested as perfectly interoperable.  But, since we had the stage we also wanted to demonstrate how the switch could execute these tests while operating at full throughput with our low latency of 300 ns.


SDN can change networking, but only if vendors continue to deliver on the promise of adopting the standard and contributing new features back to the community. Proving interoperability of controllers from all vendors is where the rubber meets the road in ensuring that SDN works as advertised.

I am pleased to announce the release of an SDK update for the Intel® Ethernet Switch FM6000 Family that adds support for several advanced data center standards.


The key new features in SDK version 3.3.0 include better support for network virtualization, improved network reliability and precision time stamping for data center latency measurement.  Here are some more details about some of these new features:


VxLAN Support: Large cloud data centers are hosting virtual networks for each tenant and now need to support tens of thousands or more of these tenants. Traditionally, these tenants were logically separated using unique VLAN identifiers, but with only 4,096 VLANs available, new methods are needed. VxLAN is a new protocol championed by VMware* and Cisco* among others that provides encapsulation (tunneling) for millions of tenants while also providing increased virtual network flexibility.


Edge Virtual Bridging (EVB) Support using VEPA: Server virtualization is improving data center efficiency, but it needs the cooperation of the top-of-rack switch to properly interconnect all of the virtual machines using the same sets of rules that are used elsewhere in the network. The virtual Ethernet port aggregator (VEPA) standard utilizes the rich set of resources available in the Ethernet bridges attached to the servers to redirect all traffic (including local VM-to-VM traffic) to the correct attached bridge.


TRILL Support: One of the changes needed for Ethernet to really work in the data center was the replacement of the spanning tree protocol, which helped to ensure loop-free networks but did so by setting up redundant links that resulted in wasted bandwidth.  The successor protocol is called transparent interconnect of lots of links (TRILL), and gets around the limitations of spanning tree. It establishes loop-free multi-link connections between RBridges (TRILL-capable switches) using a special encapsulation protocol.


Time Stamping Support:  Time stamps can now be added to data packets within 10nS from when they ingress or egress the FM6000 switch. This allows attached FPGAs or CPUs to access information on precisely when packets enter or leave the switch. This can be used in applications such as IEEE 1588 precision time protocol, which can distribute master clock time signals throughout the network, or to measure latency within a data center network.


Technology standards are evolving rapidly to keep up with the needs of data centers. We want to stay ahead of the technology curve, and with this SDK update, the Intel Ethernet Switch FM6000 Family of switches offers one of the most comprehensive data center feature sets available.

What do hero pilot Sully Sullenberger, humorist Dave Barry and software-defined networking have in common? They all packed the house at the 2012 Gartner Data Center Summit event that I attended earlier this month. While Sullenberger talked about leadership and Barry kept it funny, Gartner analysts presented their research showing that a rethinking of data center infrastructure and operations can lead to dramatically reduced costs. Part of that rethinking includes adopting SDN


That got a lot of data center managers thinking and asking questions about what SDN is and what it can do.  At least that’s the response I saw as we staffed the Intel® booth at the summit solution showcase.  We were there showing our Seacliff Trail (SCT) 10 Gbps/40 Gbps top-of-rack switch reference design along with our 10G Ethernet converged network adapters. You can read more about the SCT reference design here, which is based on the Intel Ethernet Switch FM6700 series.


The FM6700 series provides up to 72 10GbE ports or up to 18 40GbE ports and can forward frames at 960Mpps, while maintaining L3 latencies of around 400nS under all conditions. This product line is part of our FM6000 family, which continues our history of providing Ethernet switching silicon optimized for the data center. The 6700 series has been enhanced with advanced features for SDN such as large flow tables and support for VxLAN and NVGRE tunneling.


The data center managers I spoke with had heard Gartner’s message about reducing cost and improving network efficiency and had a lot of questions about how to turn the theory into action. This is another sign of the extreme excitement around SDN, and it was nice to see that many were becoming aware of Intel’s commitment to providing advanced SDN-enabled components.


Gartner itself is famous for its “hype cycle,” a graph that tracks the hype of a product over its lifecycle.  Exciting products emerge from a “technology trigger” and rise to the “peak of inflated expectations” before dropping in the “trough of disillusionment,” then emerging into the upward “slope of enlightenment.” In Gartner’s model, it's only after the products emerge from the trough that the market becomes real.


I’m not sure where SDN is along that curve, but after a few days at the summit it sure felt like the attendees were seeking enlightenment for how they could apply SDN in their data centers.

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