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.
Distributed Switching

The FlowNet architecture is innovative in ways that go beyond the structure of the frame. A FlowNet network interface card (NIC) is quite simple, consisting of a transmitter, receiver, some memory and a microprocessor. NICs are logically daisy-chained together to form a loop. Physically, FlowNet uses a star topology with a hub, just like Ethernet. When a node sends a cell, the cell is received and retransmitted by every node between the transmitter and the receiver, an arrangement known as a store-and-forward loop. To reduce latency, FlowNet uses a technique called cut-through routing, which allows a cell to be retransmitted as soon as the header is received.

The resulting network is a switched network, with a unique feature: it does not require a switch. Instead, each NIC acts like a little two-port switch, with one port on the network and another at the host interface. Switching capability is distributed among all the nodes on the loop. Cell routing decisions are made in software by the on-board microprocessor, which provides sophisticated quality of service without expensive custom hardware.

Making cell-switching decisions in software is possible due to FlowNet's large cell size. Cell-switching decisions are made on a per-cell basis. Larger cells mean fewer cells for a given data rate, which means fewer cell-switching decisions to be made. Current FlowNet prototypes can switch data at 250Mbps full-duplex (for a total data rate of 500Mbps) using an Intel i960 microprocessor.


FlowNet is a state-of-the-art network. Beside being the fastest network available over 100-meter runs copper cable, it is the only network available that provides quality of service and is efficiently interoperable with Ethernet. FlowNet was developed on a shoestring budget (about $20,000 US for a dozen prototypes) by the authors working alone in their spare time.

Open-source software, including Linux and Intel's gnu960 development tools, was instrumental in allowing this to happen. Linux was used to develop both the on-board firmware and the device drivers for FlowNet. Several Linux features were crucial for allowing us to meet our objectives. The first was the availability of model code for device drivers. Because FlowNet's interface is so similar to Ethernet, we were able to use Donald Becker's Tulip driver as a model and adapt it for FlowNet rather than starting from scratch.

The second Linux feature that helped immeasurably was kernel modules. Because device driver code is kernel code, it was not possible to run it as an application. Without modules, device drivers have to be tested by compiling them into the kernel and rebooting. This adds time to the development cycle. With kernel modules, kernel code can be dynamically linked and unlinked, reducing the testing cycle to less than a minute. We built a kernel module for FlowNet that loaded the card's firmware through the PCI bus during initialization. This made it possible to recompile and restart all the FlowNet software with a single make command. As a result, all of the software for FlowNet was developed in less than three months.

The only time rebooting was necessary was when a bug in the driver code caused a kernel panic. Sometimes this would cause the machine to crash, but not always. At no time during the development process did we ever lose any data as the result of a kernel crash, despite the fact that on occasion we were overwriting critical kernel data structures with random bits. Linux is astoundingly robust.


FlowNet would not have come into being without Linux for a development platform. The hardware costs stretched our meager budget to the limit. The development tools needed to develop FlowNet for a commercial OS would have killed the project.

FlowNet was first conceived in 1993. Although Fast Ethernet (and soon, Gigabit Ethernet) seem to be taking over the world, FlowNet is still unique in offering gigabit performance and quality of service without requiring fiber optic cabling or discarding Ethernet infrastructure. Linux made it possible to build FlowNet as a private development—it almost certainly could not have happened any other way. FlowNet is not currently in production; contact the authors for more information (http://www.flownet.com/).

Erann Gat (gat@flownet.com) is a senior member of the technical staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Mike Ciholas (mikec@flownet.com) is the owner of Cedar Technologies, a hardware design consultancy in Newburgh, Indiana.