Tom Nolle
Tom Nolle is the president and founder of CIMI Corporation and the principal consultant/analyst. Tom started his career as a...
Read Full Bio >>

Tom Nolle | May 03, 2018 |


Want an Open Network? Think P4!

Want an Open Network? Think P4! Software-defined networking hasn't really met expectations, but this special programming language could change that.

Software-defined networking hasn't really met expectations, but this special programming language could change that.

Most network users have an uneasy relationship with their equipment vendors. No matter how happy they are, or how long they took making a vendor selection, most harbor doubts about whether they're getting their gear at a fair price, and nearly all think their vendors are trying to lock them in. Things like software-defined networking (SDN) or hosted router software, once hoped-for insurance, don't seem to have helped. Well, now there's a new hope, with the cryptic name "P4," and it can handle the past, present, and even future of networking.

P4, from the P4 Language Consortium, is a kind of programming language that lets you run forwarding instructions written on a P4-equipped server or appliance -- a "white box." Think of it as "forwarding-Java."

Unlike Java and other ordinary programming languages that let you build software that does pretty much anything, P4 lets you define forwarding behavior. A P4 instruction might say something like, "If the IP header of a packet looks like THIS, then forward it to THAT port." Like Java, which needs software to interpret it for different hardware, P4 needs a complier/interpreter for each special device configuration. "Special" means not only each different CPU chip, but also any special chips in use. This includes things like application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) or field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) sold by generic chip vendors -- "merchant silicon," as it's called.

Special Sauce
One of the things that makes P4 special is its ability to support merchant silicon that's optimized for routine forwarding tasks. It's that special sauce that makes routers faster than routing software running on servers, so if P4 can exploit whatever specialized merchant silicon is built into white boxes, it can make open devices nearly equivalent to proprietary switches and routers. The vendors themselves can supply "plugins" for P4 to link with their custom chips, making it easy to add in new chips when they're developed. This is how P4 helps us deal with legacy network applications.

The industry is now grappling with the question of how to create an open ecosystem for P4 without creating so many incompatible strategies that nothing ever interworks. P4 itself defines standard plugin processes for extension, and in addition the Open Networking Foundation and the Linux Foundation both have open-device operating system projects (Stratum and DANOS, respectively) that aim to standardize P4 hosting much as Linux has standardized server operating systems.

Another benefit of P4 is that while it can define forwarding based on SDN and OpenFlow rules, it can also be used to build nothing more than a hardware-optimized legacy Ethernet switch or router. That might turn out to be the most revolutionary thing about P4, even though it sounds dull compared with the potential to support new forwarding technologies like SDN. An open P4 router implementation could run on servers and open switches (Dell has already offered some such products), and P4 software written according to the rules should be portable across products with minimal changes.

The support for legacy router/switch implementations will surely dominate early P4 adoption, but P4 is also a powerful way of creating new devices with totally different forwarding rules. If software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) products were to be structured as P4 applications, they could be portable across multiple devices beyond basic servers, making them much more useful. In addition, P4 SD-WAN might take advantage of hardware acceleration provided by merchant networking silicon, enhancing both the features and performance of SD-WAN.

And There's More!
SDN and SD-WAN illustrate the fact that P4 can also support the current thrust of network transformation, but what about the future? Are there things that we really need, that P4 could provide, and that perhaps we've not thought about? There sure are.

Let's take an example from UC/UCC. Think about a VoIP call center, something that has to route hundreds or thousands of calls per minute. In the old days, this might have been done with a PBX or even a small central office switch. In the future, a P4 box could provide exactly what's needed. P4 could also be used in cloud load-balancing, a major challenge as we try to match up mobile workforces with virtualized, scalable, distributable resources.

What hurdles will P4 need to jump, beyond the usual ones of getting early traction and delivering on the promises? The biggest technical issue isn't P4 itself, but what P4 runs in. You need a kind of operating system and compiler, as I've already said, and there are initiatives to provide them, but should we think of "forwarding" as a task for a dedicated box or software element? Why couldn't P4 route packets to other processes, even complex processes, within the box? The organizations promoting P4 open-box operating systems should think about this broader mission.

Did SDN meet your expectations? Probably not, but P4 could be a game-changer because it doesn't demand massive forklift network upgrades to validate open infrastructure strategies. You can be as conventional, or unconventional, as you like. Best of all, you can expect to see P4 boxes on the market this year. Vendors will probably sell P4 programs, and there will surely be open-source P4 programs as well. Watch this space for the next network revolution!

Follow Tom Nolle on Google+!
Tom Nolle on Google+


September 26, 2018

Join Kevin Kieller, Microsoft UC&C expert, along with Ribbon Communications and Polycom, for an update on Microsoft Ignite, and a focus on critical things you need to know about your voice depl

August 29, 2018

Moving your voice services to the cloud introduces new challenges for 9-1-1 services. These include the need to serve multiple locations, and the increased mobility that comes with having a phone t

August 8, 2018

Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming a reality for your contact center. But to turn the promise of AI into practical reality, there are a couple of prerequisites: Moving to the cloud and integr

March 12, 2018
An effective E-911 implementation doesn't just happen; it takes a solid strategy. Tune in for tips from IT expert Irwin Lazar, of Nemertes Research.
March 9, 2018
IT consultant Steve Leaden lays out the whys and how-tos of getting the green light for your convergence strategy.
March 7, 2018
In advance of his speech tech tutorial at EC18, communications analyst Jon Arnold explores what voice means in a post-PBX world.
February 28, 2018
Voice engagement isn't about a simple phone call any longer, but rather a conversational experience that crosses from one channel to the next, as Daniel Hong, a VP and research director with Forrester....
February 16, 2018
What trends and technologies should you be up on for your contact center? Sheila McGee-Smith, Contact Center & Customer Experience track chair for Enterprise Connect 2018, gives us the lowdown.
February 9, 2018
Melanie Turek, VP of connected work research at Frost & Sullivan, walks us through key components -- and sticking points -- of customer-oriented digital transformation projects.
February 2, 2018
UC consultant Marty Parker has crunched lots of numbers evaluating UC options; tune in for what he's learned and tips for your own analysis.
January 26, 2018
Don't miss out on the fun! Organizer Alan Quayle shares details of his pre-Enterprise Connect hackathon, TADHack-mini '18, showcasing programmable communications.
December 20, 2017
Kevin Kieller, partner with enableUC, provides advice on how to move forward with your Skype for Business and Teams deployments.
December 20, 2017
Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst with ZK Research, shares his perspective on artificial intelligence and the future of team collaboration.
December 20, 2017
Delanda Coleman, Microsoft senior marketing manager, explains the Teams vision and shares use case examples.
November 30, 2017
With a ruling on the FCC's proposed order to dismantle the Open Internet Order expected this month, communications technology attorney Martha Buyer walks us through what's at stake.
October 23, 2017
Wondering which Office 365 collaboration tool to use when? Get quick pointers from CBT Nuggets instructor Simona Millham.
September 22, 2017
In this podcast, we explore the future of work with Robert Brown, AVP of the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work, who helps us answer the question, "What do we do when machines do everything?"
September 8, 2017
Greg Collins, a technology analyst and strategist with Exact Ventures, delivers a status report on 5G implementation plans and tells enterprises why they shouldn't wait to move ahead on potential use ....
August 25, 2017
Find out what business considerations are driving the SIP trunking market today, and learn a bit about how satisfied enterprises are with their providers. We talk with John Malone, president of The Ea....
August 16, 2017
World Vision U.S. is finding lots of goodness in RingCentral's cloud communications service, but as Randy Boyd, infrastructure architect at the global humanitarian nonprofit, tells us, he and his team....
August 11, 2017
Alicia Gee, director of unified communications at Sutter Physician Services, oversees the technical team supporting a 1,000-agent contact center running on Genesys PureConnect. She catches us up on th....
August 4, 2017
Andrew Prokop, communications evangelist with Arrow Systems Integration, has lately been working on integrating enterprise communications into Internet of Things ecosystems. He shares examples and off....
July 27, 2017
Industry watcher Elka Popova, a Frost & Sullivan program director, shares her perspective on this acquisition, discussing Mitel's market positioning, why the move makes sense, and more.
July 14, 2017
Lantre Barr, founder and CEO of Blacc Spot Media, urges any enterprise that's been on the fence about integrating real-time communications into business workflows to jump off and get started. Tune and....
June 28, 2017
Communications expert Tsahi Levent-Levi, author of the popular blog, keeps a running tally and comprehensive overview of communications platform-as-a-service offerings in his "Choosing a W....
June 9, 2017
If you think telecom expense management applies to nothing more than business phone lines, think again. Hyoun Park, founder and principal investigator with technology advisory Amalgam Insights, tells ....
June 2, 2017
Enterprises strategizing on mobility today, including for internal collaboration, don't have the luxury of learning as they go. Tony Rizzo, enterprise mobility specialist with Blue Hill Research, expl....
May 24, 2017
Mark Winther, head of IDC's global telecom consulting practice, gives us his take on how CPaaS providers evolve beyond the basic building blocks and address maturing enterprise needs.
May 18, 2017
Diane Myers, senior research director at IHS Markit, walks us through her 2017 UC-as-a-service report... and shares what might be to come in 2018.
April 28, 2017
Change isn't easy, but it is necessary. Tune in for advice and perspective from Zeus Kerravala, co-author of a "Digital Transformation for Dummies" special edition.
April 20, 2017
Robin Gareiss, president of Nemertes Research, shares insight gleaned from the firm's 12th annual UCC Total Cost of Operations study.
March 23, 2017
Tim Banting, of Current Analysis, gives us a peek into what the next three years will bring in advance of his Enterprise Connect session exploring the question: Will there be a new model for enterpris....
March 15, 2017
Andrew Prokop, communications evangelist with Arrow Systems Integration, discusses the evolving role of the all-important session border controller.
March 9, 2017
Organizer Alan Quayle gives us the lowdown on programmable communications and all you need to know about participating in this pre-Enterprise Connect hackathon.
March 3, 2017
From protecting against new vulnerabilities to keeping security assessments up to date, security consultant Mark Collier shares tips on how best to protect your UC systems.
February 24, 2017
UC analyst Blair Pleasant sorts through the myriad cloud architectural models underlying UCaaS and CCaaS offerings, and explains why knowing the differences matter.
February 17, 2017
From the most basics of basics to the hidden gotchas, UC consultant Melissa Swartz helps demystify the complex world of SIP trunking.
February 7, 2017
UC&C consultant Kevin Kieller, a partner at enableUC, shares pointers for making the right architectural choices for your Skype for Business deployment.
February 1, 2017
Elka Popova, a Frost & Sullivan program director, shares a status report on the UCaaS market today and offers her perspective on what large enterprises need before committing to UC in the cloud.
January 26, 2017
Andrew Davis, co-founder of Wainhouse Research and chair of the Video track at Enterprise Connect 2017, sorts through the myriad cloud video service options and shares how to tell if your choice is en....
January 23, 2017
Sheila McGee-Smith, Contact Center/Customer Experience track chair for Enterprise Connect 2017, tells us what we need to know about the role cloud software is playing in contact centers today.