How an extinct zebra could upend the networking market

Written on:October 20, 2011
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The growing popularity of software defined networking has resulted in a spurt in networking startups, and that is going to get a further boost in coming months thanks to Google and an open source project shepherded by the Internet Systems Consortium, a non-profit entity. The ISC is supporting a project to stabilize and test Quagga, open source networking software. The project, called the Open Source Routing Project, is exciting because it could help make a cheap, open-source router a reality.

The ISC created the Open Source Routing Project in August after Google came to it requesting help in creating a community around Quagga. Google is a champion of the Open Source Routing Project (and Quagga) because it wants cheaper, highly programmable routers it can use in its network. Stephen Stuart, of Google says the search giant will use open source router it created called the Open LSR to use in its core network. The router is a combination of merchant switching silicon, a commodity server, the OpenFlow protocol and the Quagga open source code.

Google, however, doesn’t want to be the only OSR project supporter. It needs to find others interested in building cheaper hardware that they can program and control, hence the Open Source Routing Project. Just as OpenFlow has the Open Networking Foundation,  Quagga has the Open Source Routing Project. Bill Shetti, the general manager of the project said the goal of the project is to first stabilize the Quagga code base, and then to eventually offer commercial support for folks using the code.

Er, what is Quagga, exactly?

Quagga is an open source routing daemon that is named after an extinct African zebra. The code been languishing without an organized community, but it’s also something vendors large and small are playing with. Shetti says large service providers and Google are using it. Small companies such as Fastly are experimenting with Quagga as well. Shetti says the project is under the wing of the Internet Standards Consortium, which also provides commercial support for the Bind DNS software.

However, unlike with Bind, ICS won’t own the code for Quagga, it will just shepherd it through stabilization and then later provide support. Currently it’s looking for sponsors to help support the organizations efforts. Google is one, and Igor Gashinky, a principle architect at Yahoo said his company is also talking to the Open Source Routing Project. Other potential sponsors might include service providers, other webscale businesses and even silicon companies.

The details on Google’s Open LSR

Shetti says Google has come to the ISC and proposed that it act to help stabilize the code base as it was trying to build its Open LSR. The Open LSR is an open source router that consists of a switch made with merchant silicon and running Open vSwitch that talks to a server that has an OpenFlow based controller and uses Quagga to generate the routing tables and forwarding information.

So the server has become the route processor (the intelligence) and the switch is essentially a line card (the physical mover of the packets). The idea is similar to the box proposed by Vyatta, which puts open source software on a commodity box, but the market for the end product is different. Google wants its Open LSR to go big and handle the core network, while the Vyatta boxes are generally used to handle smaller traffic loads.

The promise of the Open Source Routing Project and Google’s Open LSR is that big data center and network operators can build out their networks more cheaply and control their own destiny with the code that manages the networking hardware. This won’t be for everyone, but for companies with a large IT staff and that sees a benefit in not paying high margins for big, intelligent boxes, they can take the money they save buying pricey gear and put it toward paying internal developers to build what Gashinsky called “a big dumb network” or perhaps add their own applications to deliver as a service as Verizon has discussed.

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