FlowNet: An Inexpensive High-Performance Network

A look at current state-of-the-art network hardware and protocols with a solution for the slow network problem.
Quality of Service

The only way to solve this problem is to add information to the frame to give switches guidance on how to handle individual frames. For example, if a frame is tagged as part of an e-mail message, a switch would know that it is perfectly acceptable to delay this frame, but also that it should probably not be discarded. On the other hand, if this frame is part of a video stream, then a switch would know that if this frame cannot be transmitted right away, it should be discarded, resulting in a small glitch in the video. Information on how a frame should be handled in a congested network is known as quality-of-service information or QoS.

QoS information can be provided in three ways. The first is to completely redesign the network from the ground up. This is the approach used by the Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) network design. ATM is a circuit-switched rather than a packet-switched network. In a packet-switched network like Ethernet, each data frame contains its destination address in its header. The process of delivering a frame to its destination is similar to that of delivering a letter. At every switch, the destination address is looked up in a table to see where it should go next. Circuit-switched networks like ATM put the destination address into only one frame, called a flow-setup frame or flow-setup cell. The flow-setup cell establishes a route through the network, much like placing a phone call does. Subsequent frames are automatically routed through this pre-established connection. The flow-setup process allows the ATM network to allocate network resources ahead of time in order to provide quality-of-service guarantees.

ATM's circuit-switched design is fundamentally incompatible with Ethernet's packet-switched design. ATM also differs from Ethernet in the size of its frames. Where Ethernet uses variable-size frames, ATM uses fixed-size 53-byte frames or cells, of which five bytes are header and 48 bytes per frame are payload data. This leads to a serious problem: the rate at which cells must be routed is so fast that it can be done only with custom hardware, which makes ATM very expensive.

The second way to provide QoS information is to put it in the data portion of an Ethernet frame. This is the approach being taken by the Ethernet community, through protocols such as RSVP. The advantage to this approach is that it is backwards compatible with existing hardware, which is important because an enormous Ethernet infrastructure is already installed. ATM can be made to interoperate with Ethernet through a technology called LAN emulation (LANE), but it is both difficult and inefficient.

The problem with implementing QoS using the existing Ethernet frame format is that most existing hardware will not recognize the new protocols associated with QoS. This can undermine the QoS mechanisms by injecting frames into the network which are not properly tagged or by not handling tagged frames properly. Thus, while this approach is backwards compatible with existing hardware, it probably won't be reliable unless most of the existing infrastructure is replaced.

The third approach is to add QoS information to the Ethernet header. This is a non-backwards-compatible change, but not as radical a redesign as ATM, and it can be done in a way that makes it easy to interoperate the new network with existing hardware. This is the approach we have taken in the design of FlowNet.

Figure 1. The FlowNet prototype is built entirely from off-the-shelf components and fits in a standard PCI slot just like an Ethernet card. In production, this board could be reduced to just two or three chips.

The FlowNet Architecture

Like ATM, FlowNet is a switched network based on fixed-size cells. Unlike ATM, FlowNet cells are large—800 bytes instead of 53. This allows room for a 14-byte Ethernet header plus an additional QoS extension. The QoS extension header is 18 bytes, making the full FlowNet header 32 bytes long. The remaining 768 bytes (=256+512) are data payload.

FlowNet interoperates with Ethernet through a simple bridge device. To convert a FlowNet cell into an Ethernet frame, the bridge simply strips off the QoS extension. To go the other way, it generates a QoS extension with default or user-configured values. For example, the bridge could be programmed to give frames from certain workstations high priority, while frames from other workstations receive low priority.

Figure 2. A diagram of the FlowNet prototype showing the location of the major components.