While attending an Ethernet alliance event some months back, I heard the following statement: “Ethernet is anything but open. It is as closed as it gets.” The speaker was one Robert “Bob” Metcalfe, co-inventor of Ethernet.
So, what is “Open Ethernet” you ask?
Well, as the title states, it’s an evolution process that networks have been going through in recent years and is now reaching the point of critical mass that could shake the foundational pillars of our current perception of the network.
It is nothing new for a technology to evolve, and Ethernet is no exception. As a protocol that has survived for over 40 years, its adaptability is exactly what has kept it alive and widely adopted, absorbing new capabilities and facilitating network innovation.
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So, how can Ethernet be both closed and open at the same time?
Let’s think of the English language. It allows people from all over the world to attend an event in Germany and be able to communicate with one another using a well-known, well-defined (AKA “closed”) and widely mastered protocol. This “opens” up a lot of room for innovation and proliferation of ideas.
So, Ethernet’s ability to evolve has kept it alive for decades and that adoption has made it “open.”
Connecting a network interface card from vendor A to switch from vendor B, onto a vendor C switch and end up in another card from vendor D is as common a scenario as can be and what more, it is almost taken for granted. Taking the switch as a component and breaking it into pieces, however, is a whole new concept.
Sidetracking in 3… 2… 1…
Think of a scenario where your smartphone has a single static image without any ability to download any apps or even develop apps of your own and run them on your phone. Sounds a bit ridiculous, right?
Now, consider the current scenario where you have a smartphone running an OS, which is open for you to download existing apps and run them on your phone and even provides you an API on which you can develop apps of your own, which can also be made available to the wide market.
This kind of flexibility is now expected and often taken for granted, but it was driven by giants such as Samsung and Apple who revolutionized the mobile market not that many years ago…
And I’m back…
Looking at an Ethernet switch as a layered component, we can see that the main elements are the protocol stack, the operating system, the chassis, and the ASIC engine.
Choosing one of these elements also means choosing the other three as part of a bundle known as the switch component. This doesn’t really leave room for creative thinking and innovation.
If you are Google or Amazon, you are probably thinking, I will just get an army of engineers and patch up whatever components I prefer. But if you are not, this barrier is probably too high for you to overcome.
What if we just had a standard interface that can pair the protocol stack with the ASIC engine? That would save an army of software engineers from engaging in a porting effort.
Thanks to a collaborative effort by an ecosystem of companies led my Microsoft, Mellanox, Dell and Broadcom, such a standard interface named SAI (Switch Abstraction Interface) now exists.
Alas, this is not enough. We need more… something like an environment that can install an Open Network operating system. Luckily, this element, commonly known as ONIE (Open Network Install Environment), also exists and was contributed to the community by Cumulus Networks.
But still we need more, where is the Open chassis that will mount all these elements on it?
Here we have another consortium known as OCP (Open Compute Program) that, led by Facebook, called for vendors to provide hardware definition of just such an open chassis. First to address this call was Mellanox Technologies, followed by several other ODM companies developing the hardware elements of an open Ethernet component.
So now, you have companies offering a variety of open Ethernet components such as NOS (Network Operating Systems) with or without a protocol stack, open source Protocol Stacks, open-compute hardware designs and also fully assembled systems which are pre-integrated and fully tested for allowing a user to select the network element of his choice and that best fits his needs.
So, how was it made possible for many shops to play like the industry’s giants without the previously mandatory army of engineers?
- First, the army still exists, but the labor is divided amongst companies such as Mellanox, Microsoft, Facebook, Cumulus and more who graciously contribute their individual accomplishments and developments to the community. This makes the barrier that needs to be surmounted, much more attainable that it had been in the past.
- Second, many small companies have grown and acquired some level of competence that enables them to enjoy the Open Ethernet model.
Now, you may be left wondering if this Open Ethernet is good for everyone? And, if is it good for you specifically?
Where I come from, it is common to answer a question with a question…
The way I see it, it is not a question of “if?” but rather a question of “when?”… are you there yet?
Ran Almog is Director, Product Management, at Mellanox Technologies.