When I think of complexity, I mostly consider transport protocols and control planes—probably because I have largely worked in these areas from the very beginning of my career in network engineering. Complexity, however, is present in every layer of the networking stack, all the way down to the physical. I recently ran across an interesting paper on complexity in another part of the network I had not really thought about before: the physical plant of a data center fabric.

Some researchers at USC and VMWare have thought about complexity in the physical infrastructure, however, and they wrote a rather interesting paper about it.

The paper begins by defining what complexity in the physical infrastructure of a DC fabric looks like. They focus on packaging, or the layout of the switches in the fabric, the bundles of cabling required to wire the topology, and the number and locations of patch panels required. The packaging and patch panels impact the length and complexity of the cable runs (whether optical or copper), which represents a base complexity for the entire topology.

The second thing they consider is the lifecycle of the physical fabric infrastructure. What steps are required to upgrade the fabric from a smaller configuration to a larger one? Or from a lower speed (higher oversubscription) to a higher speed (lower oversubscription)? The result is the ability to put a number on the overall complexity of each topology.

The first class of topologies they consider are spine-and-leaf, such as the Clos, Benes, and butterfly fabrics. They call all kinds of spine-and-leaf fabrics Clos fabrics. Spine-and-leaf fabrics, they note generally have very low cabling complexity because their symmetry encourages consistent bundling and hardware placement. They call the second kind of topology expander fabrics; the most common fabric in this class is the dragonfly. These topologies are more difficult to wire but simpler to scale out because they can be expanded largely by modifying just the edge of the fabric. Their analysis shows these classes of fabric rate equally on their complexity scale.

A side note they don’t consider in the paper—their complexity computation implies that if you are building a fabric with a somewhat fixed range of sizes, and you can preplan the location of spines leaving enough room for the maximum sized fabric on the first day, spine-and-leaf fabrics are less complex than the fancier topologies you might hear about from time to time. Since most data center fabrics do, in fact, fall into these kinds of constraints (given a good day one designer!), this seems to validate the widespread use of butterfly and Clos fabrics for most applications. This feels like a significant result for most common data center fabric designs.

Finally, they describe an interesting topology they call FatClique, which is an interesting blend of spine-and-lead and edge expander topologies; I’ve screen grabbed the image from the paper below.

Overall, it’s well worth spending the time to read the entire paper if you have an in-depth interest in fabric design.The way this topology is described feels very much like a Benes to me, or a butterfly where the fabric routers are replaced by fabrics (making a seven-stage fabric). It’s hard to tell how useful this topology would be in real deployments—but that researchers are looking into alternatives other than the venerable spine-and-leaf is interesting in its own right.