As you may have heard this week, Barefoot Networks is back in the news with the release of their newest product, Barefoot Deep Insight. Choosing to go down the road of naming a thing after what it actually does, Barefoot has created a solution to finding out why network packets are behaving the way they are.
It’s no secret that modern network monitoring is coming out of the Dark Ages. ping, traceroute, and SNMP aren’t exactly the best tools to be giving any kind of real information about things. They were designed for a different time with much less packet flow. Even Netflow can’t keep up with modern networks running at multi-gigabit speeds. And even if it could, it’s still missing in-flight data about network paths and packet delays.
Imagine standing outside of the Holland Tunnel. You know that a car entered at a specific time. And you see the car exit. But you don’t know what happened to the car in between. If the car takes 5 minutes to traverse the tunnel you have no way of knowing if that’s normal or not. Likewise, if a car is delayed and takes 7-8 minutes to exit you can’t tell what caused the delay. Without being able to see the car at various points along the journey you are essentially guessing about the state of the transit network at any given time.
Trying to solve this problem in a network can be difficult. That’s because the OS running on the devices doesn’t generally lend itself to easy monitoring. The old days of SNMP proved that time and time again. Today’s networks are getting a bit better with regard to APIs and the like. You could even go all the way up the food chain and buy something like Cisco Tetration if you absolutely needed that much visibility.
Barefoot solves this problem by using their P4 language in concert with the Tofino chipset to provide a way for there to be visibility into the packets as they traverse the network. P4 gives Tofino the flexibility to build on to the data plane processing of a packet. Rather than bolting the monitoring on after the fact you can now put it right along side the packet flow and collect information as it happens.
The other key is that the real work is done by the Deep Insight Analytics Software running outside of the switch. The Analytics platform takes the data collected from the Tofino switches and starts processing it. It creates baselines of traffic patterns and starts looking for anomalies in the data. This is why Deep Insight claims to be able to detect microbursts. Because the monitoring platform can analyze the data being fed to it and provide the operator with insights.
It’s important to note that this is info only. The insights gathered from Deep Insight are for informational purposes. This is where the skill of network professional comes into play. By gaining perspective into what could be causing issues like microbursts from the software you gain the ability to take your skills and fix those issues. Perhaps it’s a misconfigured ECMP pair. Maybe it’s a dead or dying cable in a link. Armed with the data from the platform, you can work your networking magic to make it right.
Barefoot says that Deep Insight builds on itself via machine learning. While machine learning is seems to be one of the buzzwords du jour it could be hoped that a platform that can analyze the states of packets can start to build an idea of what’s causing them to behave in certain ways. While not mentioned in the press release, it could also be inferred that there are ways to upload the data from your system to a larger set of servers. Then you can have more analytics applied to the datasets and more insights extracted.
The Deep Insight platform is what I was hoping to see from Barefoot after I saw them earlier this year at Networking Field Day 14. They are taking the flexibility of the Tofino chip and the extensibility of P4 and combining them to build new and exciting things that run right alongside the data plane on the switches. This means that they can provide the kinds of tools that companies are willing to pay quite a bit for and do it in a way that is 100% capable of being audited and extended by brilliant programmers. I hope that Deep Insight takes off and sees wide adoption for Barefoot customers. That will be the biggest endorsement of what they’re doing and give them a long runway to building more in the future.
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