Thoughts on Open/R

Since Facebook has released their Open/R routing platform, there has been a lot of chatter around whether or not it will be a commercial success, whether or not every hyperscaler should use the protocol, whether or not this obsoletes everything in routing before this day in history, etc., etc. I will begin with a single point.

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If you haven’t found the tradeoffs, you haven’t looked hard enough.

Design is about tradeoffs. Protocol design is no different than any other design. Hence, we should expect that Open/R makes some tradeoffs. I know this might be surprising to some folks, particularly in the crowd that thinks every new routing system is going to be a silver bullet that solved every problem from the past, that the routing singularity has now occurred, etc. I’ve been in the world of routing since the early 1990’s, perhaps a bit before, and there is one thing I know for certain: if you understand the basics, you would understand there is no routing singularity, and there never will be—at least not until someone produces a quantum wave routing protocol.

Ther reality is you always face one of two choices in routing: build a protocol specifically tuned to a particular set of situations, which means application requirements, topologies, etc., or build a general purpose protocol that “solves everything,” at some cost. BGP is becoming the latter, and is suffering for it. Open/R is an instance of the former.

Which means the interesting question is: what are they solving for, and how? Once you’ve answered this question, you can then ask: would this be useful in my network?

A large number of the points, or features, highlighted in the first blog post are well known routing constructions, so we can safely ignore them. For instance: IPv6 link local only, graceful restart, draining and undraining nodes, exponential backoff, carrying random information in the protocol, and link status monitoring. These are common features of many protocols today, so we don’t need to discuss them. There are a couple of interesting features, however, worth discussing.

Dynamic Metrics. EIGRP once had dynamic metrics, and they were removed. This simple fact always makes me suspicious when I see dynamic metrics touted as a protocol feature. Looking at the heritage of Open/R, however, dynamic metrics were probably added for one specific purpose: to support wireless networks. This functionality is, in fact, provided through DLEP, and supported in OLSR, MANET extended OSPF, and a number of other MANET control planes. Support DLEP and dynamic metrics based on radio information was discussed at the BABEL working group at the recent Singapore IETF, in fact, and the BABEL folks are working on integration dynamic metrics for wireless. So this feature not only makes sense in the wireless world, it’s actually much more widespread than might be apparent if you are looking at the world from an “Enterprise” point of view.

But while this is useful, would you want this in your data center fabric? I’m not certain you would. I would argue dynamic metrics are actually counter productive in a fabric. What you want, instead, is basic reachability provided by the distributed control plane (routing protocol), and some sort of controller that sits on top using an overlay sort of mechanism to do traffic engineering. You don’t want this sort of policy stuff in a routing protocol in a contained environment like a fabric.

Which leads us to our second point: The API for the controller. This is interesting, but not strictly new. Openfabric, for instance, already postulates such a thing, and the entire I2RS working group in the IETF was formed to build such an interface (though it has strayed far from this purpose, as usual with IETF working groups). The really interesting thing, though, is this: this southbound interface is built into the routing protocol itself. This design decision makes a lot of sense in a wireless network, but, again, I’m not certain it does in a fabric.

Why not? It ties the controller architecture, including the southbound interface, to the routing protocol. This reduced component flexibility, which means it is difficult to replace one piece without replacing the other. If you wanted to replace the basic functionality of Open/R without replacing the controller architecture at some point int he future, you must hack your way around this problem. In a monolithic system like Facebook, this might be okay, but in most other network environments, it’s not. In other words, this is a rational decision for Open/R, but I’m not certain it can, or should, be generalized.

This leads to a third observation: This is a monolithic architecture. While in most implementations, there is a separate RIB, FIB, and interface into the the forwarding hardware, Open/R combines all these things into a single system. In any form of Linux based network operating system, for instance, the routing processes install routes into Zebra, which then installs routes into the kernel and notifies processes about routes through the Forwarding Plane Manager (FPM). Some external process (switchd in Cumulus Linux, SWSS in SONiC), then carry this routing information into the hardware.

Open/R, from the diagrams in the blog post, pushes all of this stuff, including the southbound interface from the controller, into a different set of processes. The traditional lines are blurred, which means the entire implementation acts as a single “thing.” You are not going to take the BGP implementation from snaproute or FR Routing and run it on top of Open/R without serious modification, nor are you going to run Open/R on ONL or SONiC or Cumulus Linux without serious modification (or at least a lot of duplication of effort someplace).

This is probably an intentional decision on the part of Open/R’s designers—it is designed to be an “all in one solution.” You RPM it to a device, with nothing else, and it “just works.” This makes perfect sense in the wireless environment, particularly for Facebook. Whether or not it makes perfect sense in a fabric depends—does this fit into the way you manage boxes today? Do you plan on using boxes Facebook will support, or roll your own drivers as needed for different chipsets, or hope the SAI support included in Open/R is enough? Will you ever need segment routing, or some other capability? How will those be provided for in the Open/R model, given it is an entire stack, and does not interact with any other community efforts?

Finally, there are a number of interesting points that are not discussed in the publicly available information. For instance, this controller—what does it look like? What does it do? How would you do traffic engineering with this sytem? Segment routing, MPLS—none of the standard ways of providing virtualization are mentioned at all. Dynamic metrics simply are not enough in a fabric. How is the flooding of information actually done? In the past, I’ve been led to believe this is based on ZeroMQ—is this still true? How optimal is ZeroMQ for flooding information? What kind of telemetry can you get out of this, and is it carried in the protocol, or in a separate system? I assume they want to carry telemetry as opaque information flooded by the protocol, but does it really make sense to do this?

Overall, Open/R is interesting. It’s a single protocol designed to operate optimally in a small range of environments. As such, it has some interesting features, and it makes some very specific design choices. Are those design choices optimal for more general cases, or even other specific problem spaces? I would argue the architecture, in particular, is going to be problematic in terms of long term maintenance and growth. This can modified over time, of course, but then we are left with a collection of ideas that are available in many other protocols, making the idea much less interesting.

Is it interesting? Yes. Is it the routing singularity? No. As engineers, we should take it for what it is worth—a chance to see how other folks are solving the problems they are facing in day-to-day operation, and thinking about how some of those lessons might be applied in our own world. I don’t think the folks at Facebook would argue any more than this, either.