With all the recent acquisitions of software-centric SDN players, we had a chance to catch up with Eric Carmès, CEO and Founder of 6WIND, to get his thoughts on the shift to software-centricity in the networking industry, as well as his views on SDN, NFV and commoditization of the networking market.
SDNCentral: 6WIND has a rich heritage in networking, and has been a provider of networking software that powers many networks today. However, for readers who may not yet be familiar with 6WIND, can you provide some background around the company and the markets you serve?
Eric: “6WIND is a networking software company providing high-performance solutions that address critical challenges in Software Defined Networks.
The first SDN market that we targeted was mobile infrastructure and most of our current revenue comes from this application. Since 2007, we have licensed our 6WINDGate™ software to many tier-one Telecom Equipment Manufacturers (TEMs), including Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Hitachi, LG-Ericsson, NEC, Nokia-Siemens Networks and others. These TEMs selected our software because it enables them to achieve best-in-class cost-performance and latency in LTE networking equipment, while accelerating their time-to-market and maximizing their architecture flexibility. In Japan, for example, if you have an LTE device, there’s an 80% chance that our software is touching your traffic.
The second large market for our software is network appliances. To improve both CAPEX and OPEX, the networking industry is moving away from the use of appliances based on proprietary hardware platforms (ASICs or network processors), both towards physical appliances based on commodity multicore processors (Broadcom, Cavium, Intel etc) and towards virtual network appliances which are pure software solutions running on standard x86 blades.
The third market for 6WINDGate is data center networking. Besides providing high-performance software for network appliances in the access and aggregation layer, we provide comprehensive networking solutions for virtual switches instantiated on application server blades. As processor performance increases, so does the number of Virtual Machines (VMs) deployed on each server blade. For multi-tenant environments, this drives a need for advanced networking functions (security, firewall, ADC etc) to run at high performance on an accelerated virtual switch, which is where 6WINDGate fits.”
Eric: “For service providers, we see the main drivers for SDN and NFV as being (1) the need for improved CAPEX and OPEX, achieved through the better utilization of their networking equipment, (2) the need for rapid deployment of new features and services in order to retain high-value subscribers and boost their Average Revenue per User (ARPU), which requires flexible, centrally-managed networks and (3) the trend towards network virtualization as mobile infrastructure moves to a cloud-based model, in order to maximize network scalability and flexibility. All of these market drivers are relevant to enterprises as well.”
SDNCentral: With the move from a hardware-centric to a software-centric approach in networking, what do you see as 6WIND’s opportunity?
Eric: “SDN transforms the business model for networking, replacing the traditional, vertically-integrated model characterized by proprietary software running on proprietary hardware with a horizontally-disaggregated model comprising generic hardware platforms based on general purpose processors as well as an OS or hypervisor to deploy applications. This basically applies the standard computing model to networking.
From the perspective of the network operator or service provider, an SDN architecture promises significant improvements in CAPEX, in OPEX, in network manageability and the time required to deploy new network-oriented applications.
To be cost-effective, however, this concept requires high-performance networking software running on industry-standard hypervisors. 6WIND is the only commercial software company providing software that solves this problem, with a proven history of successful deployments in service provider networks worldwide.”
SDNCentral: I would like to expand more on this point. Isn’t a software stack just a software stack? What’s the difference between 6WIND and other software stacks?
Eric: “Almost ten years ago, 6WIND’s networking software experts realized that leveraging the (then) new commodity multicore processors as cost-effective engines for high performance networking would require specialized software that would solve the networking performance problems associated with standard OS stacks. 6WIND has invested over a hundred man-years of engineering effort into developing the 6WINDGate software which is completely based on SDN concepts, continuing to evolve it in order to proactively address new applications (such as data center networking) and deliver additional features.
Uniquely, 6WINDGate delivers high-performance networking features that are fully optimized for a wide range of industry-standard multicore platforms. This enables our licensees to develop their own application software for their product portfolio with full confidence that they will be able to deploy it on whatever processor platform is most appropriate for a given product, or to simultaneously deploy the same application on multiple products based on different processor platforms.”
SDNCentral: How do you see 6WIND playing in an SDN ecosystem? Where does 6WINDGate fit?
Eric: “The architecture of 6WINDGate is based on SDN principles, in that the control plane and data plane run on different sets of processor cores. By running the data plane on dedicated cores in Linux userspace, 6WINDGate delivers 10x the networking performance of a standard Operating System stack. At the same time, it provides linear performance scalability across blades and racks (including across equipment that is in different physical locations).
The first application for 6WINDGate within an SDN ecosystem is in network equipment (gateways, firewalls, routers etc), whether located in mobile infrastructure, in enterprise IT environments or in data centers. Studies show that 6WINDGate reduces CAPEX by 80% compared to traditional physical network appliances (using proprietary ASICs or network processors). At the same time, it reduces OPEX by 80% compared to software-based appliances (using a standard OS networking stack running on a multicore processor).
Within SDN-based data centers, 6WINDGate solves network performance problems on the application server blades (as well as in the network appliances in the access/aggregation layer). As processor performance increases, so does the number of Virtual Machines (VMs) instantiated on each server blade. For multi-tenant environments, this drives a need for advanced networking functions (security, firewall, ADC etc) to run at high performance on an accelerated virtual switch. 6WINDGate provides these functions while also accelerating the overall performance of the switch, which increases the availability of processor resources for use by the VMs themselves.”
SDNCentral: What kind of optimizations and architectural differences does 6WINDGate have compared to say a regular Linux network and routing stack or solutions from other vendors? Is there specific support for x86 architectures, what’s the relevancy to virtualized infrastructure and SDN?
Eric: “In the 6WINDGate software architecture, the control plane and data plane are separate. Within the data plane, the 6WINDGate fast path runs isolated from the Linux operating system, on a dedicated set of processor cores. The fast path protocols process the majority of network packets, without incurring any of the Linux overheads that degrade overall performance. The fast path implements a run-to-completion model, whereby all cores run the same software and can be allocated as required, according to the necessary level of packet processing or Linux application performance.
6WINDGate includes optimized support for Intel® Xeon processors, implemented through the use of the Intel® Data Plane Development Kit (Intel® DPDK) software library. 6WINDGate uses services provided the Intel® DPDK to ensure that it fully leverages the performance features of the processors.
In addition to functions and NIC drivers provided with the standard DPDK distribution, 6WIND also provides valuable add-ons to DPDK for increased system functionality and performance. These include:
- Support for non-Intel NICs such as the Mellanox ConnectX®-3 EN series,
- Crypto support via both Intel® Multi-Buffer Crypto software and Cave Creek hardware,
- DPDK drivers for external crypto engines such as Cavium’s Nitrox®,
- Drivers for enabling DPDK in virtualized environments such as VMware VMWNET3 and KVM-XEN VIRTIO.”
SDNCentral: That’s interesting, particularly your support for Intel’s DPDK. And the performance numbers seem to indicate that it’s a very viable alternative to traditional hardware-centric non-NFV/SDN approaches. Does this mean you only work well on Intel platforms?
Eric: “6WINDGate provides the same level of optimized support for all the processor platforms that we support (besides Intel, these are from Broadcom, Cavium, LSI, TI and Tilera). This enables our licensees to develop their own application software for their product portfolio with full confidence that they will be able to deploy it on whatever processor platform is most appropriate for a given product, or to simultaneously deploy the same application on multiple products based on different processor platforms.”
SDNCentral: What kind of timeframes would you expect to see this software transition?
Eric: “The transition to a software-based networking approach has already started. We have customers today using our software in LTE networks (both for physical and virtual equipment) as well as in network appliances. We believe that three factors will contribute to the acceleration of the trend: first, the growing number of solutions for different elements of SDN-based infrastructure; second, the ongoing improvements in x86 processor performance which is a key enabler for virtualized networking; third, the increase in real-world deployments of SDN solutions that offer genuine proof-points that the SDN trend is more than just an interesting technology and delivers tangible, business-level CAPEX and OPEX benefits.”
SDNCentral: Do you believe the networking hardware market will commoditize?
Eric: “Yes, and we see the main drivers for commoditization in the networking market to be the availability of the appropriate hardware and software elements, at reasonable cost, rather than the emergence of SDN architectures (after all, you can implement SDN using proprietary platforms). On the hardware side, one of the keys to commoditization in networking has been low-cost multicore processors based on standard architectures (e.g. x86, ARM, MIPS and Power), that deliver adequate levels of networking performance when used along with the appropriate commercially-available networking software (such as 6WINDGate). With full support from industry-standard development tools, operating systems and hypervisors, these standard platforms offer compelling improvements in time-to-market, CAPEX and OPEX, thereby enabling the commoditization of the networking market that leads to the adoption of the horizontally-disaggregated model we discussed earlier. SDN certainly leverages this commoditization, opening up the network to enable the rapid development, deployment and management of business applications through well-defined APIs.”
SDNCentral: What’s your vision of the future for networking? What’s the boldest claim or prediction you would make about the market?
Eric: “For the next ten years (these transitions always take longer than investors and analysts would like), let’s make three predictions:
- First, networking will become a platform for value-added differentiation by service providers in the mobile, enterprise and data center markets, rather than just a cost element comprising a complex, risky-to-program set of dumb pipes. This will create a whole new set of opportunities for service providers to bring new, unique features and services to their subscribers, both enterprises and consumers.
- Second, the current leading networking equipment companies will embark on business-critical transitions to become primarily software companies, differentiating themselves through the value of their software that runs on generic, commodity hardware platforms. The execution of these transitions will be complex and challenging, not least because of hardware-centric cultural issues. New leaders will emerge.
- Third, the distinction between mobile networks and cloud networks will vanish, at least beyond the Radio Access Network (RAN), which is basically the interface to the RF. All the mobile functions currently implemented in products such Packet Gateways, Serving Gateways, Mobility Management Entities (MMEs) etc. will just be implemented as pure software in the cloud, probably running on equipment not even owned by the mobile service provider, who is freed up (or challenged) to deliver real subscriber value through software.”
Thank you very much for your time and we wish you the best in this exciting market!