Brocade’s Pragmatically Defined Network

logo-brocadeMost of the readers of my blog would agree that there is a lot of discussion in the networking world today about software defined networking (SDN) and the various parts and pieces that make up that umbrella term.  There’s argument over what SDN really is, from programmability to orchestration to network function virtualization (NFV).  Vendors are doing their part to take advantage of some, all, or in some cases none of the above to push a particular buzzword strategy to customers.  I like to make sure that everything is as clear as possible before I start discussing the pros and cons.  That’s why I jumped at the chance to get a briefing from Brocade around their new software and hardware releases that were announced on April 30th.

I spoke with Kelly Harrell, Brocade’s new vice president and general manager of the Software Business Unit.  If that name sounds somewhat familiar, it might be because Mr. Harrell was formerly at Vyatta, the software router company that was acquired by Brocade last year.  We walked through a presentation and discussion of the direction that Brocade is taking their software defined networking portfolio.  According to Brocade, the key is to be pragmatic about the new network.  New technologies and methodologies need to be introduced while at the same time keeping in mind that those ideas must be implemented somehow.  I think that a large amount of the frustration with SDN today comes from a lot of vaporware presentations and pie-in-the-sky ideas that aren’t slated to come to fruition for months.  Instead, Brocade talked to me about real products and use cases that should be shipping very soon, if not already.

The key to Brocade is to balance SDN against network function virtualization, something I referred to a bit in my Network Field Day 5 post about Brocade.  Back then, I called NFV “Networking Done (by) Software,” which was my sad attempt to point out how NFV is just the opposite of what I see SDN becoming.  During our discussion, Harrell pointed out that NFV and SDN aren’t totally dissimilar after all.  Both are designed to increase the agility with which a company can execute on strategy and create value for shareholders.  SDN is primarily focused on programmability and orchestration.  NFV is tied more toward lowering costs by implementing existing technology in a flexible way.

NFV seeks to take existing appliances that have been doing tasks, such as load balancers or routers, and free their workloads from being tied to a specific piece of hardware.  In fact, there has been an explosion of these types of migrations from a variety of vendors.  People are virtualizing entire business lines in an effort to remove the reliance on specialized hardware or reduce the ongoing support costs.  Brocade is seeking to do this with two platforms right now.  The first is the Vyatta vRouter, which is the extension what came over in the Vyatta acquisition.  It’s a router and a firewall and even a virtual private networking (VPN) device that can run on just about anything.  It is hypervisor agnostic and cloud platform agnostic as well.  The idea is that Brocade can include a copy of the vRouter with application packages that can be downloaded from an enterprise cloud app store.  Once downloaded and installed, the vRouter can be fired up and pull a predefined configuration from the scripts included in the box.  By making it agnostic to the underlying platform, there’s no worry about support down the road.

The second NFV platform Brocade told me about is the virtual ADX application delivery switch.  It’s basically a software load balancer.  That’s not really the key point of the whole idea of applying the NFV template to an existing hardware platform.  Instead, the idea is that we’re taking something that’s been historically huge and hard to manage and moving it closer to the edge where it can be of better use.  Rather that sticking a huge load balancer at the entry point to the data center to ensure that flows are separated, the vADX allows the load balancer to be deployed very close to the server or servers that need to have the information flow metered.  Now, the agility of SDN/NFV allows these software devices to be moved and reconfigured quickly without needing to worry about how much reprogramming is going to be necessary to pull the primary load balancer out or change a ton of rules to take reroute traffic to a vMotioned cluster.  In fact, I’m sure that we’re going to see a new definition of the “network edge” being to emerge as more software-based NFV devices begin to be deployed closer and closer to the devices that need them.

On the OpenFlow front, Brocade told me about their new push toward something they are calling “Hybrid Port OpenFlow.”  OpenFlow is a great disruptive SDN technology that is gaining traction today, largely in part because of companies like Brocade and NEC that have embraced it and started pushing it out to their customer base well ahead of other manufacturers.  Right now, OpenFlow support really consists to two modes – ON and OFF.  OFF is pretty easy to imagine.  ON is a bit more complicated.  While a switch can be OpenFlow enabled and still forward normal traffic, the practice has always been to either dedicate the switch to OpenFlow forwarding, in effect turning it into a lab switch, or to enable OpenFlow selectively for a group of ports out of the whole switch, kind of like creating a lab VLAN for testing on a production box.  Brocade’s Hybrid Port OpenFlow model allows you to enable OpenFlow on a port and still allow it to do regular traffic forwarding sans OpenFlow.  That may be the best model for adopters going forward due to one overriding factor – cost.  When you take a switch or a group of ports on a switch and dedicate them for OpenFlow, you are cost the enterprise something.  Every port on the switch costs a certain amount of money.  Every minute an engineer spends working on a crazy lab project incurs a cost.  By enabling the network engineers to turn on OpenFlow at will without disrupting the existing traffic flow, Brocade can reduce the opportunity cost of enabling OpenFlow to almost zero.  If OpenFlow just becomes something that works as soon as you enable it, like IPv6 in Windows 7, you don’t have to spend as much time planning for your end node configuration.  You just build the core and let the end nodes figure out they have new capabilities.  I figure that large Brocade networks will see their OpenFlow adoption numbers skyrocket simply because Hybrid Port mode turns the configuration into Easy Mode.

The last interesting software piece that Brocade showed me is a prime example of the kinds of things that I expect SDN to deliver to us in the future.  Brocade has created an application called the Application Resource Broker (ARB).  It sits above the fray of the lower network layers and monitors indicators of a particular application’s health, such as latency and load.  When one of those indicators hits a specific threshold, ARB kicks in to request more resources from vCenter to balance things out.  If the demand on the application continues to rise beyond the available resources, ARB can dynamically move the application to a public cloud instance with a much deeper pool of resources, a process known as cloudbursting.  All of this can happen automatically without the intervention of IT.  This is one of the things that shows me what SDN can really do.  Software can take care of itself and dynamically move things around when abnormal demand happens.  Intelligent choices about the network environment can be made on solid data.  No guess what about what “might” be happening.  ARB removes doubt and lag in response time to allow for seamless network repair.  Try doing that with a telnet session.

There’s a lot more to the Brocade announcement than just software.  You can check it out at http://www.brocade.com.  You can also follow them on Twitter as @BRCDComm.


Tom’s Take

The future looks interesting at first.  Flying cars, moving sidewalks, and 3D user interfaces are all staples of futuristic science fiction.  The problem for many arises when we need to start taking steps to build those fanciful things.  A healthy dose of pragmatism helps to figure out what we need to do today to make tomorrow happen.  If we root our views of what we want to do with what we can do, then the future becomes that much more achievable.  Even the amazing gadgets we take for granted today have a basis in the real technology of the time they were first created.  By making those incremental steps, we can arrive where we want to be a whole lot sooner with a better understanding of how amazing things really are.

Brocade Defined Networking

logo-brocade

Brocade stepped up to the plate once again to present to the assembled delegates at Network Field Day 5.  I’ve been constantly impressed with what they bring each time they come to the party.  Sometimes it’s a fun demo.  Other times its a great discussion around OpenFlow.  With two hours to spend, I wanted to see how Brocade would steer this conversation.  I could guarantee that it would involve elements of software defined networking (SDN), as Brocade has quietly been assembling a platoon on SDN-focused luminaries.  What I came away with surprised even me.

Mike Schiff takes up the reigns from Lisa Caywood for the title of Mercifully Short Introductions.  I’m glad that Brocade assumes that we just need a short overview for both ourselves and the people watching online.  At this point, if you are unsure of who Brocade is you won’t get a feel for it in eight short minutes.

Curt Beckman started off with fifteen minutes of discussion about where the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) is concentrating on development.  Because Curt is the chairman of the ONF, we kind of unloaded on him a bit about how the ONF should really be called the “Open-to-those-with-$30,000-to-spare Networking Foundation”.  That barrier to entry really makes it difficult for non-vendors to have any say in the matters of OpenFlow.  Indeed, the entry fee was put in place specifically to deter those not materially interested in creating OpenFlow based products from discussing the protocol.  Instead, you have the same incumbent vendors that make non-OpenFlow devices today steering the future of the standard.  Unlike the IETF,  you can’t just sign up for the mailing list or show up to the meetings and say your peace.  You have to have buy in, both literally and figuratively.  I proposed the hare-brained idea of creating a Kickstarter project to raise the necessary $30,000 for the purpose of putting a representative of “the people” in the ONF.  In discussions that I’ve had before with IETF folks they all told me you tend to see the same thing over and over again.  Real people don’t sit on committees.  The IETF is full of academics that argue of the purity of an OAM design and have never actually implemented something like that in reality.  Conversely, the ONF is now filled with deep pocketed people that are more concerned with how they can use OpenFlow to sell a few more switches rather than now best to implement the protocol in reality.  If you’d like to donate to an ONF Kickstarter project, just let me know and I’ll fire it up.  Be warned – I’m planning on putting Greg Ferro (@etherealmind) and Brent Salisbury (@networkstatic) on the board.  I figure that should solve all my OpenFlow problems.

The long presentation of this hour was all about OpenFlow and hybrid switching.  I’ve seen some of the aspects of this in my day job.  One of the ISPs in my area is trying to bring a 100G circuit into the state for Internet2 SDN-enabled links.  The demo that I saw in their office was pretty spiffy.  You could slice off any section of the network and automatically build a path between two nodes with a few simple clicks.  Brocade expanded my horizons of where these super fast circuits were being deployed with discussions of QUILT and GENI as well as talking about projects across the ocean in Australia and Japan.  I also loved the discussions around “phasing” SDN into your existing network.  Brocade realizes that no one is going to drop everything they currently have and put up an full SDN network all at once.  Instead, most people are going to put in a few SDN-enabled devices and move some flows to them at first both as a test and as a way to begin new architecture.  Just like remodeling a house, you have to start somewhere and shore up a few areas before you can really being to change the way everything is laid out.  That is where the network will eventually lead to being fully software defined down the road.  Just realize that it will take time to get there.

Next up was a short update from Vyatta.  They couldn’t really go into a lot of detail about what they were doing, as they were still busy getting digested by Brocade after being acquired.  I don’t have a lot to say about them specifically, but there is one thing I thought about as I mulled over their presentation.  I’m not sure how much Vyatta plays into the greater SDN story when you think about things like full API programmability, orchestration, and even OpenFlow.  Rather than being SDN, I think products like Vyatta and even Cisco’s Nexus 1000v should instead be called NDS – Networking Done (by) Software.  If you’re doing Network Function Virtualization (NFV), how much of that is really software definition versus doing your old stuff in a new way?  I’ve got some more, deeper thoughts on this subject down the road.  I just wanted to put something out there about making sure that what you’re doing really is SDN instead of NDS, which is a really difficult moving target to hit because the definition of what SDN really does changes from day to day.

Up next is David Meyer talking about Macro Trends in Networking.  Ho-ly crap.  This is by far my favorite video from NFD5.  I can say that with comfort because I’ve watched it five times already.  David Meyer is a lot like Victor Shtrom from Ruckus at WFD2.  He broke my brain after this presentation.  He’s just a guy with some ideas that he wants to talk about.  Except those ideas are radical and cut right to the core of things going on in the industry today.  Let me try to form some thoughts out of the video above, which I highly recommend you watch in its entirety with no distractions.  Also, have a pen and paper handy – it helps.

David is talking about networks from a systems analysis perspective.  As we add controls and rules and interaction to a fragile system, we increase the robustness of that system.  Past a certain point, though, all those extra features end up harming the system.  While we can cut down on rules and oversight, ultimately we can’t create a truly robust system until we can remove a large portion of the human element.  That’s what SDN is trying to do.  By allowing humans to interact with the rules and not the network itself you can increase the survivability of the system.  When we talk about complex systems, we really talk about increasing their robustness while at the same time adding features and flexibility.  That’s where things like SDN come into the discussion in the networking system.  SDN allows us to constrain the fragility of a system by creating a rigid framework to reduce the complexity.  That’s the “bow tie” diagram about halfway in.  We have lots of rules and very little interaction from agents that can cause fragility.  When the outputs come out of SDN, the are flexible and unconstrained again but very unlikely to contribute to fragility in the system.  That’s just one of the things I took away from this presentation.  There are several more that I’d love to discuss down the road once I’ve finished cooking them in my brain.  For now, just know that I plan on watching this presentation several more times in the coming weeks.  There’s so much good stuff in such a short time frame.  I wish I could have two hours with David Meyer to just chat about all this crazy goodness.

If you’d like to learn more about Brocade, you can check out their website at http://www.brocade.com.  You can also follow them on Twitter as @BRCDcomm


Tom’s Take

Brocade gets it.  They’ve consistently been running in the front of the pack in the whole SDN race.  They understand things like OpenFlow.  They see where the applications are and how to implement them in their products.  They engage with the builders of what will eventually become the new SDN world.  The discussions that we have with Curt Beckman and David Meyer show that there are some deep thinkers that are genuinely invested in the future of SDN and not just looking to productize it.  Mark my words – Brocade is poised to leverage their prowess in SDN to move up the ladder when it comes to market share in the networking world.  I’m not saying this lightly either.  There’s an adage attributed to Wayne Gretskey – “Don’t skate where the puck is.  Skate where the puck is going.”  I think Brocade is one of the few networking companies that’s figured out where the puck is going.

Tech Field Day Disclaimer

Brocade was a sponsor of Network Field Day 5.  As such, they were responsible for covering a portion of my travel and lodging expenses while attending Network Field Day 5.  In addition, Brocade provided a USB drive of marketing material and two notepads styled after RFC 2460.  At no time did they ask for, nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the writing of this review.  The opinions and analysis provided within are my own and any errors or omissions are mine and mine alone.

Brocade – Packet Spraying and SDN Integrating

Brocade kicked off our first double session at Network Field Day 4.  We’d seen them previously at Network Field Day 2 and I’d just been to Brocade’s headquarters for their Tech Day a few weeks before.  I was pretty sure that the discussion that was about to take place was going to revolve around OpenFlow and some of the hot new hardware the Brocade had been showing off recently.  Thankfully, Lisa Caywood (@TheRealLisaC) still has some tricks up her sleeve.

I hereby dub Lisa “Queen of the Mercifully Short Introduction.”  Lisa’s overview of Brocade hit all the high points about what Brocade’s business lines revolve around.  I think by now that most people know that Brocade acquired Foundry for their ethernet switching line to add to their existing storage business that revolves around Fibre Channel.  With all that out of the way, it was time to launch into the presentations.

Jessica Koh was up first to talk to me about a technology that I haven’t seen already – HyperEdge.  This really speaks to me because the majority of my customer base isn’t ever going to touch a VDX or and ADX or an MLXe.  HyperEdge technology is Brocade’s drive to keep the campus network infrastructure humming along to keep pace with the explosion of connectivity in the data center.  Add in the fact that you’ve got all manner of things connecting into the campus network, and you can see how things like manageability can be at the forefront of people’s minds.  To that end, Brocade is starting off the HyperEdge discussion early next year with the ability to stack dissimilar ICX switches together.  This may sound like crazy talk to those of you that are used to stacking together Cisco 3750s or 2960s.  On those platforms, every switch has to be identical.  With the HyperEdge stacking, you can take an ICX 6610 and stack it with an ICX 6450 and it all works just fine.  In addition, you can place a layer 3 capable switch into the stack in order to provide a device that will get your packets off the local subnet.  That is a very nice feature that allows the customer base to buy layer 2 today if needed then add on in the future when they’ve outgrown the single wiring closet or single VLAN.  Once you’ve added the layer 3 switch to the stack, all those features are populated across all the ports of the whole stack.  That helps to get rid of some of the idiosyncrasies of some of the first stacking switch configurations, like not being able to locally switch packets.  Add in the fact that the stacking interfaces on these switches are the integrated 10Gig Ethernet ports, and you can see why I’m kind of excited.  No overpriced stacking kits.  Standard SFP+ interfaces that can be reused in the event I need to break the stack apart.

I’m putting this demo video up to show how a demo during your presentation can be both a boon and a bane.  Clear you cache after you’re done or log in as a different user to be sure you’re getting a clean experience.  The demo can be a really painful part when it doesn’t run correctly.

Kelvin Franklin was up next with an overview of VCS, Brocade’s fabric solution.  This is mostly review material from my Tech Day briefing, but there are some highlights here.  Firstly, Brocade is using yet a third new definition for the word “trunk”.  Unlike Cisco and HP, Brocade refers to the multipath connections into a VCS fabric as a trunk.  Now, a trunk isn’t a trunk isn’t a trunk.  You just have to remember the context of which vendor you’re talking about.  This was also the genesis of packet spraying, which I’m sure was a very apt description for what Brocade’s VCS is doing to the packets as they send them out of the bundled links but it doesn’t sound all that appealing.  Another thing to keep in mind when looking at VCS is that it is heavily based on TRILL for the layer 2 interconnects, but it does use FSPF from Brocade’s heavy fibre channel background to handle the routing of the links instead of IS-IS as the TRILL standard calls for.  Check out Ivan’s post from last year as to why that’s both good and bad.  Brocade also takes time to call out the fact that they’ve done their own ASIC in the new VCS switches as opposed to using merchant silicon like many other competitors.  Only time will tell how effective the move to merchant silicon will be for those that choose to use it, but so long as Brocade can continue to drive higher performance from custom silicon it may be an advantage for them.

This last part of the VCS presentation covers some of the real world use cases for fabrics and how Brocade is taking an incremental approach to building fabrics.  I’m curious to see how the VCS will begin to co-mingle with the HyperEdge strategy down the road.  Cisco has committed to bringing their fabric protocol (FabricPath) to the campus in the Catalyst 6500 in the near future.  With all the advantages of VCS that Brocade has discussed, I would like to see it extending down into the campus as well.  That would be a huge advantage for some of my customers that need the capability to do a lot of east-west traffic flows without the money to invest in the larger VCS infrastructure until their data usage can provide adequate capital.  There may not be a lot that comes out of it in the long run, but even having the option to integrate the two would be a feather in the marketing cap.

After lunch and a short OpenStack demo, we got an overview of Brocade’s involvement with the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) from Curt Beckmann.  I’m not going to say a lot about this video, but you really do need to watch it if you are at all curious to see where Brocade is going with their involvement with OpenFlow going forward.  As you’ve no doubt heard before, OpenFlow is really driving the future of networking and how we think about managing data flows.  Seeing what Brocade is doing to implement ideas and driving direction of ONF development is nice because it’s almost like a crystal ball of networking’s future.

The last two videos really go together to illustrate how Brocade is taking OpenFlow and adopting it into their model for software defined networking (SDN).  By now, I’ve heard almost every imaginable definition of SDN support.  On one end of the spectrum, you’ve got Cisco and Juniper.  A lot of their value is tied up in their software.  IOS and Junos represent huge investments for them.  Getting rid of this software so the hardware can be controlled by a server somewhere isn’t the best solution as they see it.  Their response has been to open APIs into their software and allow programmability into their existing structures.  You can use software to drive your networking, but you’re going to do it our way.  At the other extreme end of the scale, you’ve got NEC.  As I’ve said before, NEC is doubling down on OpenFlow mainly for one reason – survival.  If they don’t adapt their hardware to be fully OpenFlow compliant, they run the risk of being swept off the table by the larger vendors.  Their attachment to their switch OS isn’t as important as making their hardware play nice with everyone else.  In the middle, you’ve got Brocade.  They’ve made some significant investments into their switch software and protocols like VCS.  However, they aren’t married to the idea of their OS being the be all, end all of the conversation.  What they do want, however, is Brocade equipment in place that can take advantage of all the additional features offered from areas that aren’t necessarily OpenFlow specific.  I think their idea around OpenFlow is to push the hybrid model, where you can use a relatively inexpensive Brocade switch to fulfill your OpenFlow needs while at the same time allowing for that switch to perform some additional functionality above and beyond that defined by the ONF when it comes to VCS or other proprietary software.  They aren’t doing it for the reasons of survival like NEC, but it offers them the kind of flexibility they need to get within striking distance of the bigger players in the market.

If you’d like to learn more about Brocade, you can check out their website at http://www.brocade.com.  You can also follow them on Twitter as @BRCDComm.

Tom’s Take

I’ve seen a lot of Brocade in the last couple of months.  I’ve gotten a peek at their strategies and had some good conversations with some really smart people.  I feel pretty comfortable understanding where Brocade is going with their Ethernet business.  Yes, whenever you mention them you still get questions about fibre channel and storage connectivity, but Brocade really is doing what they can to get the word out about that other kind of networking that they do.  From the big iron of the VDX to the ability to stack the ICX switches all the way to the planning in the ONF to run OpenFlow on everything they can, Brocade seems to have started looking at the long-term play in the data networking market.  Yes, they may not be falling all over themselves to go to war with Cisco or even HP right now.  However, a bit of visionary thinking can lead one to be standing on the platform when the train comes rumbling down the track.  That train probably has a whistle that sounds an awful lot like “OpenFlow,” so only time can tell who’s going to be riding on it and who’s going to be underneath it.

Tech Field Day Disclaimer

Brocade was a sponsor of Network Field Day 4.  As such, they were responsible for covering a portion of my travel and lodging expenses while attending Network Field Day 4.  In addition, Brocade provided me with a gift bag containing a 2GB USB stick with marketing information and a portable cell phone charger. They did not ask for, nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the writing of this review.  The opinions and analysis provided within are my own and any errors or omissions are mine and mine alone.