Pushing intelligence to the edge

The development of intelligent edge-network devices are enabling better performance by taking on a greater share of the processing burden, thereby relieving overworked servers.

“The way networks used to be built, you’d have a central office with racks and racks of very expensive, very complex equipment. From there would emanate a bunch of copper wires, and at the end you’d have a device with very few working parts, like a POTS (plain old telephone system) telephone,” says Mark Klimek, senior director of marketing and business development at French equipment maker Alcatel SA.

But the new breed of “smart” routers and switches are outfitted with silicon-based components that support run-time protocol and service provisioning. That means more deployment options, better network performance through enhanced packet prioritization, acceleration, metering, load balancing, and, ultimately, lower costs.

By assuming more of the network processing workload, intelligent edge devices process algorithms at orders of magnitude faster than standard routers, according to Randy Smerik, general manager of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel Corp.’s network equipment division. The reason: Hard-wired silicon can be dedicated to specific processing tasks, such as pattern matching and string recognition, unlike software-based solutions, which must perform several tasks at once. Similarly, dedicated silicon can eliminate many of the redundant work inherent in tasks such as algorithm processing, Smerik says.

Conveying intelligence to edge devices therefore requires new kinds of silicon. To that end, component manufacturers Intel and Motorola recently unveiled chips that can implant more processing power in routers and switches. Intel’s newest control processor boards, for example, are designed to support greater bandwidth, higher levels of processing density, and multiserver management.

Motorola Inc. also just unveiled a set of 10Gbps network processors intended to support higher-volume demand. The C-5e processor promises threefold processing capacity improvements, thanks to faster clock rates and lesser power consumption, while the Q-5 embeds QoS (quality of service) functionality directly into the data path.

Meanwhile, equipment makers such as Cisco Systems Inc. have been busily incorporating those parts into their latest gear. Router ports are becoming more scalable, according to Kathy Hill, vice-president of Cisco’s desktop switching and Ethernet access group, who notes that “a lot of technology is happening in these switches” that was previously unavailable.

“We’ve upgraded all of our silicon,” Hill adds. “What you’re seeing (Cisco) offer is capability that never existed before.” For example, the Cisco 3550 switch, announced earlier this year, uses advanced chips to deliver enhanced IP routing, QoS, and security services.

Specialized software is also used to complement the silicon-enriched hardware devices, thus enabling interoperability and customizability. “Protocols and standards change rapidly, so combining software and hardware together gives you the best time to market,” Intel’s Smerik says.

For enterprises, the bottom line is greater data throughput and availability, which is particularly attractive given the alternative: A single fibre buildout can cost anywhere from US$1.5 million to US$3 million.

Apart from basic routing services, intelligent edge devices can also help companies realize improvements in areas such as network security and XML processing. Historically, SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) encryption and decryption and XML message-parsing functions ran natively on local servers, competing with the other work that those servers and related databases had to perform. But offloading that processing on to the network enables those devices to run more predictably, without any depreciation in the service quality.

“You can still watch and understand all the packets going by, right down to the XML tag,” Smerik explains. “You can see what a message is and decide how to prioritize it or whether you should filter it.”

Another benefit of edge intelligence is that it eases the deployment of new services. Network operators can quickly provision different routing, processing, and computing capabilities from a central location.

“A lot of new applications are becoming available, and you have to modify your equipment to support that,” Alcatel’s Klimek says. “You may have customers that all want a different service mix from their ISP. (Using intelligent devices), when the newest app comes out next year, you don’t have to rip out a bunch of hardware to support it. You just do a software download, a little reconfiguring, and you’ve got a whole new service to offer somebody. It gives you more control closer to the user.”

One of the few downsides to edge intelligence is that the technology raises the complexity of network administration, creating a need for specialized expertise that may not be available in-house.

“An IT shop has to be prepared to do some benchmarking and be pretty knowledgeable in (managing routers and switches),” Smerik says. “You have to understand how these things fit together. That’s just what comes with open systems – with more choice comes more homework.”