ConnectX-3 Leverages Network Services in SDN Era

Guest blog by: Alon Harel


If your job is related to networking, be it a network admin, an R&D engineer, an architect, or any other job involving networks, it is very likely you have heard people around you (or GASP! maybe even heard yourself) express doubts about the proliferation of Software Defined Networking (SDN) and OpenFlow. How many times have you encountered skepticism about this new revolutionary concept of decoupling control and data planes and “re-inventing the wheel”? Many people used to think “this is hype; it will go away like other new technologies did, and it will never replace the traditional network protocols…” Well, if you perceive SDN/OpenFlow only as a replacement for the current network distributed protocol, these doubts may be turn out to be valid. The concept of saying “OpenFlow is here to replace the old strict protocols” is pretty much the message one gets from reading the old white papers regarding OpenFlow. These papers used to describe the primary motivation for moving to OpenFlow as the determination to introduce innovation in the control plane (that is, the ability to test and apply new forwarding schemes in the network).


This long preface is the background for the use case we present below. This use case is not about a new forwarding scheme, nor is it about re-implementing protocols; rather, it is a complementary solution for existing traditional networks. It is about adding network services in an agile way, allowing cost-efficient scalability. It is innovative and fresh and, most importantly, it could have not been done prior to the SDN era. Its simplicity and the fact that it relies on some very basic notions of OpenFlow can only spark the imagination about what can be done further using the SDN toolbox.


RADWARE’s security appliance, powered by Mellanox’s OpenFlow-enabled ConnectX®-3 adapter, brings a new value proposition to the network appliance market, demonstrating the power of SDN by enabling the addition of network services in a most efficient and scalable way.


Security and attack mitigation service is applied for pre-defined protected objects (servers) identified by their IP address. Prior to SDN, the security appliance had to be a ‘bump in the wire’ because all traffic destined for the protected objects must traverse through it. This, of course, dictates network physical topology, limited by the appliance’s port bandwidth and imposing high complexity when scale comes into play.


RADWARE’s DefenseFlow software is capable of identifying abnormal network behavior by monitoring the amount of bytes and packets of specific flows destined for the protected objects. The monitoring is performed by installing specific flows in the forwarding hardware only for the sake of counting the amount of data traversing it. Flow configuration and counter information is retrieved via standard OpenFlow primitives. The naïve approach would be to use the OpenFlow switches to accommodate the flows (counters); however, the limited resource capacity of commodity switches (mainly TCAM, which is the prime resource for OpenFlow) rules out this option. (Note that a switch may be the data path for hundreds or thousands of VMs, each with several monitored flows). Thus, the viability of the solution must come from somewhere else. Enter Mellanox’s OpenFlow-enabled ConnectX-3 SR-IOV adapter.


ConnectX-3 incorporates an embedded switch (or eSwitch) enabling VM communication to enjoy bare metal performance. The HCA driver includes OpenFlow agent software, based on the Indigo-2 open source project, which enables the eSwitch to be controlled using standard OpenFlow protocol.


Installing the flows (counters) on the edge switch (eSwitch) makes a lot of sense. First, each eSwitch is responsible only for a relatively small amount of protected objects (only those servers running on a specific host), therefore the scale obstacle becomes a non-issue. Moreover, more clever or sophisticated monitoring (for example, event generation when a threshold is crossed) can easily be added, offloading the monitoring application (DefenseFlow in this case).


You might think, “What’s new about that? We already have Open vSwitch (OVS) on the server which is OpenFlow capable.” Well, when performance is the name of the game, OVS is out and SR-IOV technology is in. While in SR-IOV mode, VM communication is performed by interfacing the hardware, directly bypassing any virtual switch processing software; therefore, in this mode OVS’s OpenFlow capabilities cannot be used (as it is not part of the data path).


Let’s take a look at this practically by describing the setup and operation of the joint solution. The setup is based on standard servers equipped with Mellanox’s ConnectX-3 adapter and OpenFlow-enabled switch and with RADWARE’s DefensePro appliance and DefenseFlow software, which interacts with the Floodlight OpenFlow controller.

SDN bog iamge1.png

Figure 1 – Setup


Here’s a description of the joint solution operation, as depicted in Figure 2:

  • DefenseFlow installs the relevant flows on each ConnectX-3 adapter.
  • The security appliance does not participate in the normal data path.
  • ConnectX-3 counts traffic matching the installed flows.
  • Flow counters are retrieved from ConnectX-3.
  • Once an attack is identified, only relevant traffic is diverted to the security appliance (where it is cleared of malicious flows and inserted back toward its destination).



SDN bog iamge2.png

Figure 2 -Joint Solution


I would argue that every skeptic seeing this example use case and the added value it brings to existing network environments using these very basic OpenFlow knobs, would have to reconsider his SDN doubts…