Nonblocking versus Noncontending

“We use a nonblocking fabric…”

Probably not. Nonblocking is a word that is thrown around a lot, particularly in the world of spine and leaf fabric design—but, just like calling a Clos a spine and leaf, we tend to misuse the word nonblocking in ways that are unhelpful. Hence, it is time for a short explanation of the two concepts that might help clear up the confusion. To get there, we need a network—preferably a spine and leaf like the one shown below.


Based on the design of this fabric, is it nonblocking? It would certainly seem so at first blush. Assume every link is 10g, just to make the math easy, and ignore the ToR to server links, as these are not technically a part of the fabric itself. Assume the following four 10g flows are set up—

  • B through [X1,Y1,Z2] towards A
  • C through [X1,Y2,Z2] towards A
  • D through [X1,Y3,Z2] towards A
  • E through [X1,Y4,Z2] towards A

As there are four different paths between these four servers (B through E) and Z2, which serves as the ToR for A, all 40g of traffic can be delivered through the fabric without dropping or queuing a single packet (assuming, of course, that you can carry the traffic optimally, with no overhead, etc.—or reducing the four 10g flows slightly so they can all be carried over the network in this way). Hence, the fabric appears to be nonblocking.

What happens, however, if F transmits another 10g of traffic towards A at the X4 ToR? Again, even disregarding the link between Z2 and A, the fabric itself cannot carry 50g of data to Z2; the fabric must now block some traffic, either by dropping it, or by queuing it for some period of time. In packet switched networks, this kind of possibility can always be true.

Hence, you can design the fabric and the applications—the entire network-as-a-system—to reduce contention through the intelligent use of traffic engineering, admission policies (such as bandwidth calendaring). You can also manage contention through QoS policies and using flow control mechanisms that will signal senders to slow down when the network is congested.

But you cannot build a nonblocking packet switched network of any realistic size or scope. You can, of course, build a network that has two hosts, and enough bandwidth to support the maximum bandwidth of both hosts. But when you attach a third host, and then a fourth, etc., the problem of building a nonblocking fabric in a packet switched network becomes problematic; it is always possible for two sources to “gang up” on a single destination, overwhelming the capacity of the network.

It is possible, of course, to build a nonblocking fabric—so long as you use a synchronous or circuit switched network. The concept of a nonblocking network, in fact, comes out of the telephone world, where each user must only connect with one other user, and each user uses and has a fixed amount of bandwidth. In this world, it is possible to build a true nonblocking network fabric.

In the world of packet switching, the closest we can come is a noncontending network, which means every host can (in theory) send to every other host on the network at full rate. From there, it is up to the layout of the workloads on the fabric, and the application design, to reduce contention to the point where no blocking is taking place.

This is the kind of content that will be available in Ethan and I’s new book, which should be published around January of 2018, if the current schedule holds.

1 Comment

  1. Eduard on 12 June 2017 at 2:09 pm

    There is a little semantic difference between noncontending and nonblocking that might misdirect non-technical people — and which wants to create the illusion of the circuit switching attributes (pre-allocated bandwidth, tight QoS parameters etc.). The thing is imo that the dropped packets is and will be the second nature of statistical multiplexing technique used in packet switching, but from the commercial standpoint “non-blocking” sounds like a very bold statement that removes any doubts with regards with packet losses.