It’s not a CLOS, it’s a Clos

Way back in the day, when telephone lines were first being installed, running the physical infrastructure was quite expensive. The first attempt to maximize the infrastructure was the party line. In modern terms, the party line is just an Ethernet segment for the telephone. Anyone can pick up and talk to anyone else who happens to be listening. In order to schedule things, a user could contact an operator, who could then “ring” the appropriate phone to signal another user to “pick up.” CSMA/CA, in essence, with a human scheduler.

This proved to be somewhat unacceptable to everyone other than various intelligence agencies, so the operator’s position was “upgraded.” A line was run to each structure (house or business) and terminated at a switchboard. Each line terminated into a jack, and patch cables were supplied to the operator, who could then connect two telephone lines by inserting a jumper cable between the appropriate jacks.

An important concept: this kind of operator driven system is nonblocking. If Joe calls Susan, then Joe and Susan cannot also talk to someone other than one another for the duration of their call. If Joe’s line is tied up, when someone tries to call him, they will receive a busy signal. The network is not blocking in this case, the edge is—because the node the caller is trying to reach is already using 100% of its available bandwidth for an existing call. This is called admission control; all non-blocking networks must either be provisioned so the sum total of the transmitters cannot consume the whole of the cross-sectional bandwidth available in the network, or they must have effective admission control.

Blocking networks did exist in the form of trunk connections, or connections between these switch panels. Trunk connections not only consumed ports on the switchboard, they were expensive to build, and required a lot of power to run. Hence, making a “long distance call” costs money because it consumed a blocking resource. It is only when we get to packet switched digital networks that the cost of a “long distance call” drops to the rough equivalent of a “normal” call, and we see “long distance” charges fade into memory (many of my younger readers have never been charged for “long distance calls,” in fact, and may not even know what I’m talking about).

The human operators were eventually replaced by relays.

The old “crank to ring” phones were replaced with “dial phones,” which break the circuit between the phone and the relay to signal a digit being dialed. The process begins when you lift the handset, which causes voltage to run across the line. Spinning the dial breaks the circuit once for each digit on the dial. Each time the circuit breaks, the armature on this stack of circular relays is moved. The first digit dialed causes the relay to move up (or down, depending on the relay) the stack. When you pause for a second before dialing the second number, the motors reset so the arm will now move around the circle, starting with the zero position. When it reaches this spot, the arm connects your physical line to another relay, which then repeats the process, ultimately reaching the line of the person you want to call and creating a direct electrical connection between the caller and the receiver. We used to have huge banks of these relays, accompanied by 66 style punch-down blocks, and sometimes (in newer systems) spin-down connections for permanent circuits. We mostly “troubleshot” them with WD-40 and electrical contact solution from spray cans (yes, I have personal experience).

These huge relay banks became unwieldy to support, of course, so they were eventually replaced with fabrics—crossbar fabrics.

In a crossbar fabric, each device is “attached twice,” once on the send side, and once on the receive side. When you place a call, your “send” is connected to the receivers “receive” by making an electrical connection where your “send” line intersects with the receivers “receive” line. All of this hardware, however, has the property of scaling up rather than out. In order to create a larger telephone switch, you simply have to buy a larger fabric of some kind. You cannot “add to” a fabric once it is built, which means when a region outgrows its fabric, you either must install a new on and connect the two fabrics with trunk lines, you must rip the entire fabric out and replace it.

This is the problem Edson Erwin, and later Charles Clos, were trying to solve—how do you build a large-scale switching fabric out of simple components, and yet scale to virtually any size. While Erwin invented the concept in 1938, the concept was formalized by Clos in 1952. Charles Clos, by the way, was French, so the proper pronunciation is “klo,” with a long “o.”

The solution was to use four port switches (or relays, in the case of circuits), each of which are connected into a familiar looking fabric.

This was designed to be a unidirectional fabric, with each edge node (leaf) having a send and receive side, much like a crossbar. It is fairly obvious that the fabric is nonblocking on admission control; if a1 connects to b3, then a1’s entire bandwidth is consumed in that connection, so a1 cannot accept any other connections. If d1 also tries to connect to b3, it will receive the traditional “busy signal.” The network does not block, it just refuses to accept the new connection at the edge.

What if you wanted to make this fabric bidirectional? To allow traffic to flow from a1 to b3 while also allowing traffic to flow from a3 to, say, d1? You would “fold” the fabric. This does not involve changing the physical layout at all; folded Clos fabrics are not drawn any differently than non-folded Clos fabrics. They look identical on paper (stop drawing them as if putting a1 and a3 on the same side of the fabric makes them into a “two-stage folded fabric”—this is not what “folded” means). The primary change here is in the “control plane,” or the scheduler, which must be modified to allow traffic to flow in either direction. Packet switching is almost always bidirectional, so all Clos fabrics used in packet switched networks are “folded” in this way.

Another interesting point—you cannot really perform “acceptance flow control” on a packet-switched network, so there is no way to make the fabric “nonblocking.” In a circuit-based network, the number of edge ports can be tied to the amount of cross-sectional bandwidth available in the fabric. You can over-subscribe the fabric by provisioning more ports on the edge than the cross-sectional bandwidth of the fabric itself can support, of course, which makes the fabric non-contending, rather than non-blocking. In a packet-switched network, it just is not possible to perform reliable admission control; because of this, packet switched Clos fabrics, then, are always non-contending rather than non-blocking.

So the next time you put CLOS in a document, or on a white board, don’t. It’s a Clos fabric, not a CLOS fabric. It’s not non-blocking, and you do not “fold” it by drawing it with two stages. Clos fabrics always have an odd number of stages. There is a mathematical reason for this, but this post is already long enough.

Another problem with our common usage of these terms is we call every kind of spine-and-leaf (or leaf-and-spine) fabric a Clos, and we have started calling all kinds of networks, including overlay networks, “fabrics.” This post is already long (as above), so I will leave these for the future.

If you liked this short article, and would like to understand more about fabrics and fabric design, please join me for me upcoming Data Center Design live webinar on Safari Books. I will cover this history there, but I will also cover a lot of other things involved in designing data center fabrics.