Is The Rise Of SD-WAN Thanks To Ethernet?

Ethernet

SD-WAN has exploded in the market. Everywhere I turn, I see companies touting their new strategy for reducing WAN complexity, encrypting data in flight, and even doing analytics on traffic to help build QoS policies and traffic shaping for critical links. The first demo I ever watched for SDN was a WAN routing demo that chose best paths based on cost and time-of-day. It was simple then, but that kind of thinking has exploded in the last 5 years. And it’s all thanks to our lovable old friend, Ethernet.

Those Old Serials

When I started in networking, my knowledge was pretty limited to switches and other layer 2 devices. I plugged in the cables, and the things all worked. As I expanded up the OSI model, I started understanding how routers worked. I knew about moving packets between different layer 3 areas and how they controlled broadcast storms. This was also around the time when layer 3 switching was becoming a big thing in the campus. How was I supposed to figure out the difference between when I should be using a big router with 2-3 interfaces versus a switch that had lots of interfaces and could route just as well?

The key for me was media types. Layer 3 switching worked very well as long as you were only connecting Ethernet cables to the device. Switches were purpose built for UTP cable connectivity. That works really well for campus networks with Cat 5/5e/6 cabling. Switched Virtual Interfaces (SVIs) can handle a large amount of the routing traffic.

For WAN connectivity, routers were a must. Because only routers were modular in a way that accepted cards for different media types. When I started my journey on WAN connectivity, I was setting up T1 lines. Sometimes they had an old-fashioned serial connector like this:

s-l300

Those connected to external CSU/DSU modules. Those were a pain to configure and had multiple points of failure. Eventually, we moved up in the world to integrated CSU/DSU modules that looked like this:

ehwic-2-ports-t-1-e-1

Those are really awesome because all the configuration is done on the interface. They also take regular UTP cables instead of those crazy V.35 monsters.

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But those UTP cables weren’t Ethernet. Those were still designed to be used as serial connections.

It wasn’t until the rise of MPLS circuits and Transparent LAN services that Ethernet became the dominant force in WAN connectivity. I can still remember turning up my first managed circuit and thinking, “You mean I can use both FastEthernet interfaces? No cards? Wow!”.

Today, Ethernet dominates the landscape of connectivity. Serial WAN interfaces are relegated to backwater areas where you can’t get “real WAN connectivity”. And in most of those cases, the desire to use an old, slow serial circuit can be superseded by a 4G/LTE USB modem that can be purchased from almost any carrier. It would appear that serial has joined the same Heap of History as token ring, ARCnet, and other venerable connectivity options.

Rise, Ethernet

The ubiquity of Ethernet is a huge boon to SD-WAN vendors. They no longer have to create custom connectivity options for their appliances. They can provide 3-4 Ethernet interfaces and 2-3 USB slots and cover a wide range of options. This also allows them to simplify their board designs. No more modular chassis. No crazy requirements for WIC slots, NM slots, or any other crazy terminology that Cisco WAN engineers are all too familiar with.

Ethernet makes sense for SD-WAN vendors because they aren’t concerned with media types. All their intelligence resides in the software running on the box. They’d rather focus on creating automatic certificate-based IPsec VPNs than figuring out the clock rate on a T1 line. Hardware is not their end goal. It is much easier to order a reference board from Intel and plug it into a box than trying to configure a serial connector and make a custom integration.

Even SD-WAN vendors that are chasing after the service provider market are benefitting from Ethernet ubiquity. Service providers may still run serial connections in their networks, but management of those interfaces at the customer side is a huge pain. They require specialized technical abilities. It’s expensive to manage and difficult to troubleshoot remotely. Putting Ethernet handoffs at the CPE side makes life much easier. In addition, making those handoffs Ethernet makes it much easier to offer in-line service appliances, like those of SD-WAN vendors. It’s a good choice all around.

Serial connectivity isn’t going away any time soon. It fills an important purpose for high-speed connectivity where fiber isn’t an option. It’s also still a huge part of the install base for circuits, especially in rural areas or places where new WAN circuits aren’t easily run. Traditional routers with modular interfaces are still going to service a large number of customers. But Ethernet connectivity is quickly growing to levels where it will eclipse these legacy serial circuits soon. And the advantage for SD-WAN vendors can only grow with it.


Tom’s Take

Ethernet isn’t the only reason SD-WAN has succeeded. Ease of use, huge feature set, and flexibility are the real reasons when SD-WAN has moved past the concept stage and into deployment. WAN optimization now has SD-WAN components. Service providers are looking to offer it as a value added service. SD-WAN has won out on the merits of the technology. But the underlying hardware and connectivity was radically simplified in the last 5-7 years to allow SD-WAN architects and designers to focus on the software side of things instead of the difficulties of building complicated serial interfaces. SD-WAN may not owe it’s entire existence to Ethernet, but it got a huge push in the right direction for sure.

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Intel and the Network Arms Race

IntelLogo

Networking is undergoing a huge transformation. Software is surely a huge driver for enabling technology to grow by leaps and bounds and increase functionality. But the hardware underneath is growing just as much. We don’t seem to notice as much because the port speeds we deal with on a regular basis haven’t gotten much faster than the specs we read about years go. But the chips behind the ports are where the real action is right now.

Fueling The Engines Of Forwarding

Intel has jumped into networking with both feet and is looking to land on someone. Their work on the Data Plane Development Kit (DPDK) is helping developers write code that is highly portable across CPU architecture. We used to deal with specific microprocessors in unique configurations. A good example is Dynamips.

Most everyone is familiar with this program or the projects that spawned, Dynagen and GNS3. Dynamips worked at first because it emulated the MIPS processor found in Cisco 7200 routers. It just happened that the software used the same code for those routers all the way up to the first releases of the 15.x train. Dynamips allowed for the emulation of Cisco router software but it was very, very slow. It almost didn’t allow for packets to be processed. And most of the advanced switching features didn’t work at all thanks to ASICs.

Running networking code on generic x86 processors doesn’t provide the kinds of performance that you need in a network switching millions of packets per second. That’s why DPDK is helping developers accelerate their network packet forward to approach the levels of custom ASICs. This means that a company could write software for a switch using Intel CPUs as the base of the system and expect to get good performance out of it.

Not only can you write code that’s almost as good as the custom stuff network vendors are creating, but you can also have a relative assurance that the code will be portable. Look at the pfSense project. It can run on some very basic hardware. But the same code can also run on a Xeon if you happen to have one of those lying around. That performance boost means a lot more packet switching and processing. No modifications to the code needed. That’s a powerful way to make sure that your operating system doesn’t need radical modifications to work across a variety of platforms, from SMB and ROBO all the way to an enterprise core device.

Fighting The Good Fight

The other reason behind Intel’s drive to get DPDK to everyone is to fight off the advances of Broadcom. It used to be that the term merchant silicon meant using off-the-shelf parts instead of rolling your own chips. Now, it means “anything made by Broadcom that we bought instead of making”. Look at your favorite switching vendor and the odds are better than average that the chipset inside their most popular switches is a Broadcom Trident, Trident 2, or even a Tomahawk. Yes, even the Cisco Nexus 9000 runs on Broadcom.

Broadcom is working their way to the position of arms dealer to the networking world. It soon won’t matter what switch wins because they will all be the same. That’s part of the reason for the major differentiation in software recently. If you have the same engine powering all the switches, your performance is limited by that engine. You also have to find a way to make yourself stand out when everything on the market has the exact same packet forwarding specs.

Intel knows how powerful it is to become the arms dealer in a market. They own the desktop, laptop, and server market space. Their only real competition is AMD, and one could be forgiven for arguing that the only reason AMD hasn’t gone under yet is through a combination of video card sales and Intel making sure they won’t get in trouble for having a monopoly. But Intel also knows what it feels like to miss the boat on a chip transition. Intel missed the mobile device market, which is now ruled by ARM and custom SoC manufacturing. Intel needs to pull off a win in the networking space with DPDK to ensure that the switches running in the data center tomorrow are powered by x86, not Broadcom.


Tom’s Take

Intel’s on the right track to make some gains in networking. Their new Xeon chips with lots and lots of cores can do parallel processing of workloads. Their contributions to CoreOS will help the accelerate the adoption of containers, which are becoming a standard part of development. But the real value for Intel is helping developers create portable networking code that can be deployed on a variety of devices. That enables all kinds of new things to come, from system scaling to cloud deployment and beyond.