In a world where network processors are viewed as a commodity, the assumption is that most innovation will be driven by software. But support is building for the P4 language to boost NFV, as chip specialists point to hardware improvements that will be key for more demanding applications in a virtualized environment.
“Too many people think innovation is all about software,” says Cliff Grossner, an industry analyst with Infonetics. “The pendulum is now swinging back to hardware.”
To make it easier for organizations to take advantage of a broad range of custom processors that can be optimized for specific use cases, hardware vendors have been rallying behind the open source P4 programming language being developed by the P4 Language Consortium. The Consortium is developing the specifications for the P4 programming language as well as associated compilers. Members of the P4 Language Consortium include Alibaba Group, AT&T, Baidu, Broadcom, Brocade, Cisco, Comcast, Dell, Huawei, Intel, Juniper Networks, Korea Telecom, Marvell, Mellanox Technologies, Microsoft, Netronome, PLUMgrid, SK Telecom, and VMware.
How P4 Language Boosts NFV
P4 is a declarative language for expressing how packets are processed in network forwarding elements such as a switches, NICs, routers, or other network function appliances. It is based upon an abstract forwarding model consisting of a parser and a set of match+action table resources, divided between ingress and egress. P4 chips compatible with the language can be reprogrammed in the field, after they are installed in hardware, to help them assimilate the intelligence of software-defined networking (SDN). This could lead the P4 language to boost NFV performance. (Read more in our SDxCentral.com directory.)
Last week at the P4 Language Consortium Workshop event, Netronome announced that an integrated development environment (IDE) – which supports both C and the P4 programming environment for its Agilio CX and LX family of intelligent server adapters – will be generally available in July. Sujal Das, senior vice president and general manager of marketing and corporate strategy for Netronome, says the goal is to reduce the amount of effort and code required to program SDN functions using the Agilio server networking platform.
“P4 results in about 10 times less code being written,” says Das. “We think that’s going to appeal to telcos and cloud service providers.”
Netronome is also taking the P4 language a step further by developing extensions to enable integration with optional C-based programming for sophisticated functions such as stateful processing.
The reason for that is that many cloud service providers and telcos are embracing open networking and white boxes to deliver new services using network function virtualization (NFV) software. But rather than being confined to commodity processors, P4 means many of them can start thinking about leveraging programmable processors that can be optimized for a specific NFV function.
Focus on the P4 Language Consortium
In fact, this week at the P4 Language Consortium Workshop event, AT&T and Netronome demonstrated how the Netronome IDE and Agilio platform enable significantly higher service-level agreements to be put in place using cloud IaaS and telco NFV applications. In cloud IaaS deployments, they showed how the IDE can more quickly help identify and resolve tenant application performance bottlenecks. In telco NFV deployments, more visibility into dynamic data center traffic is achieved, making it possible to pinpoint issues related to call drops or poor call and video quality in 4G and 5G networks.
AT&T has spoken publicly about using P4 to connect virtual networking software with hardware. AT&T has demonstrated several proofs-of-concept using the technology, including one implemented in white-boxes switches and another using Juniper gear to connect a physical switch with a virtual router.
While not every IT organization will necessarily have to develop hands-on experience with P4, carriers and cloud service providers will soon discover that P4 is going to be indispensable. But even if an IT organization doesn’t work directly with P4, most of them will soon benefit from its existence once 5G networks are more widely deployed.