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.

We have been using Linux to develop a new high-speed network we call FlowNet. This project has been a “virtual garage” operation, involving only two people, one in California and the other (at various times) in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Indiana. We transferred designs and code over the Internet and hardware via Federal Express. The result is a unique network that combines the best features of today's current standards into a single design. FlowNet is currently the world's fastest computer network capable of operating over 100 meters of standard category-5 copper cable. The software for FlowNet was developed and currently runs exclusively under Linux.

To appreciate how FlowNet works, it is important to understand some details about network hardware, so we will start with a brief tutorial on the current network state of the art.

Network Background

The dominant hardware standard for local area networks today is Ethernet, which comes in dozens of variants. The only feature common to all forms of Ethernet is its frame format; that is, the format of the data handled directly by the Ethernet hardware. An Ethernet frame is a variable-size frame ranging from 64 to 1514 bytes, with a 14-byte header. The header contains only three fields: the address of the sender of the frame, the address of the receiver and the frame type.

Shared-Media Ethernet

Ethernet design has two major variations called shared-media and switched. In shared-media Ethernet, all the network nodes are connected to a single piece of wire, so only one node can transmit data at any one time. Ethernet uses a protocol called carrier-sense-multiple-access with collision detection (CSMA/CD) to choose which node is allowed to transmit at any given time. CSMA/CD is a non-deterministic protocol and does not guarantee fair access. In fact, in a heavily congested network, CSMA/CD tends to favor a single node to the exclusion of others, a phenomenon known as the capture effect. Being on the wrong end of the capture effect is one way a network connection can be lost for a long period of time.

The CSMA/CD protocol does not allow a node to start transmitting while the wire is being used by another node (that is the carrier-sense part). However, it is possible for two nodes to start transmitting at almost the same time. The result is that the two transmissions interfere with each other and neither transmission can be properly received. The period during which a collision can occur is the time from when a node starts to transmit to when the signal actually arrives at all other nodes on the wire. This time depends on the physical distance between the furthest nodes on the wire. If this distance is too long, a node might finish transmitting a frame before it arrives at all nodes on the wire. This would make it possible for a collision to occur that the transmitting node would not detect. In order to prevent this from happening, the physical span of a shared-media Ethernet network is limited. This distance is known as the collision diameter; it is a function of the time necessary to transmit the shortest possible Ethernet frame (64 bytes). The collision diameter of a traditional Ethernet operating at 10Mbps is about two kilometers, which is plenty for most local area networks. However, the collision diameter shrinks at faster data rates, since the time it takes to transmit a frame is less. The collision diameter for Fast Ethernet, which operates at 100Mbps, is 200 meters—a limit that can be constraining in a large building. (The collision diameter for Gigabit Ethernet would be 20 meters, but because this distance is so ridiculously short, Gigabit Ethernet does not use CSMA/CD.)

Switched Ethernet

The way to get around the limitations of shared-media Ethernet is to use a device called a switch. A switch has a number of connections or ports, each of which can receive a frame simultaneously with the others. Thus, in a switched network, multiple nodes can transmit at the same time. In a purely switched network, every node has its own switch port and there can be no collisions. However, there can still be resource contention because it is now possible for two nodes to simultaneously transmit frames destined for a single node, which still can receive only one frame at a time. The switch must therefore decide which frame to deliver first and what to do with the other frame while waiting. Switches typically include some buffering so that contention of this sort does not necessarily result in lost data, but under heavy use, all switched networks will eventually be forced to discard some frames.

How does the switch decide which frames to drop? Most switches simply operate on a first-in/first-out basis. That is, when they are forced to drop frames, they drop the most recently received ones. Not much in the way of alternatives is offered because no information is in the Ethernet header to indicate which frames are less important and should be dropped first. As a result, when most switches become congested, they drop frames essentially at random.

That behavior creates a serious problem. The response of most network protocols, including TCP/IP, to dropped frames is to retransmit the dropped frames. Thus, network congestion leads to randomly dropped frames, which leads to retransmission, which leads to more network congestion, which leads to more randomly dropped frames. When this happens, many networks, in particular the Internet, will often come to a screeching halt.