Hold On – There’s a More Efficient Way to do Packet Processing in Virtual Machines

First in a five-part series

It is increasingly common to implement packet processing functions in virtual machines. This is what Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) is all about.

The most common implementation model for network functions has been to replicate the functions in the devices that are distributed around the network. This is the easiest way to do it, but taking a step back it becomes clear that this is not the most efficient way to do it both from a management point of view as well as from an overall efficiency point of view.

Consider DHCP for example. A network could have 50 edge routers running DHCP, but there is no reason why DHCP has to run in each edge router. The traffic load associated with DHCP is small so it makes sense to run each of the 50 DHCP instances as a Virtual Machine (VM) or possibly as a thread of a DHCP VM on a centralized server. There is the efficiency benefit in statistically multiplexing the computational load (all 50 instances are never running at the same time) and several management benefits such as only having to update a single system to fix bugs and add features and only having to configuration a single local system. Additionally, modern cloud computing technology provides the ability to migrate VMs for redundancy and to cloud burst for unexpected load peaks.

NFV requires high-performance software-based implementations of these packet processing functions in a virtual machine environment. These implementations must be able to read packets from the network, process them, and send packets out to the network. There are a variety of tools and techniques for implementing packet processing in Virtual Machines. In this blog series we will discuss two common, but very different approaches. One is the XEN Hypervisor and the other is the Data Plane Development Kit (DPDK). Depending on the functionality required, these two solutions can be used independently or concurrently. Over a sequence of blog posts we will describe these two approaches and how they can be used to implement high-performance packet-processing software.

​In the next blog post we provide a brief overview of the XEN hypervisor and DPDK.

by Larry S.

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