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Reaction: The Power of Open APIs

Disaggregation, in the form of splitting network hardware from network software, is often touted as a way to save money (as if network engineering were primarily about saving money, rather than adding value—but this is a different soap box). The primary connections between disaggregation and saving money are the ability to deploy white boxes, and the ability to centralize the control plane to simplify the network (think software defined networks here—again, whether or not both of these are true as advertised is a different discussion).

But drivers that focus on cost miss more than half the picture. A better way to drive the value of disaggregation, and the larger value of networks within the larger network technology sphere, is through increased value. What drives value in network engineering? It’s often simplest to return to Tannenbaum’s example of the station wagon full of VHS backup tapes. To bring the example into more modern terms, it is difficult to beat the bandwidth of an overnight box full of USB thumb drives in terms of pure bandwidth.

In this view, networks can primarily be seen as a sop to human impatience. They are a way to get things done more quickly. In the case of networks quantity—speed—often becomes a form of quality—increased value.

But what does disaggregation have to do with speed? The connection is the open API.

When you disaggregate a network device into hardware and software, you necessarily create a stable, openly accessible API between the software and the hardware. Routing protocols, and other control plane elements must be able to build a routing table that is somehow then passed on to the forwarding hardware, so packets can be forwarded through the network. A fortuitous side effect of this kind of open API is that anyone can use it to control the forwarding software.

Enter the new release of ScyllaDB. According to folks who test these things, and should know, ScyllaDB is much faster than Cassandra, another industry leading open source database system. How much faster? Five to ten times faster. A five- to ten-fold improvement in database performance is, potentially, a point of quantity that can easily have a different quality. How much faster could your business handle orders, or customer service calls, or many other things, if you could speed the database end of the problem up even five-fold? How many new ways of processing information to gain insight from that data about business operations, customers, etc.

How does Scylla provide these kinds of improvements over Cassandra? In the first place, the newer database system is written in a faster language, C++ rather than Java. Scylla also shards processing across processor cores more efficiently. It doesn’t rely on the page cache.

None of this has to do with network disaggregation—but there is one way the Scylla developers improved the performance of their database that does relate to network disaggregation: ScyllaDB writes directly to the network interface card using DPDK. The interesting point, from a network engineering point of view, is that simply would not be possible without disaggregation between hardware and software opening up DPDK as an interface for a database to directly push packets to the hardware.

The side effects of disaggregation are only beginning to be felt in the network engineering world; the ultimate effects could reshape the way we think about application performance on the network, and the entire realm of network engineering.

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