3.5 Broader Perspective

Virtual Networks All the Way Down

For almost as long as there have been packet-switched networks, there have been ideas about how to virtualize them, starting with virtual circuits. But what exactly does it mean to virtualize a network?

Virtual memory is a helpful example. Virtual memory creates an abstraction of a large and private pool of memory, even though the underlying physical memory may be shared by many applications and considerably smaller that the apparent pool of virtual memory. This abstraction enables programmers to operate under the illusion that there is plenty of memory and that no-one else is using it, while under the covers the memory management system takes care of things like mapping the virtual memory to physical resources and avoiding conflict between users.

Similarly, server virtualization presents the abstraction of a virtual machine (VM), which has all the features of a physical machine. Again, there may be many VMs supported on a single physical server, and the operating system and users on the virtual machine are happily unaware that the VM is being mapped onto physical resources.

A key point is the virtualization of computing resources preserves the abstractions and interfaces that existed before they were virtualized. This is important because it means that users of those abstractions don't need to change—they see a faithful reproduction of the resource being virtualized. Virtualization also means that the different users (sometimes called tenants) cannot interfer with each other. So what happens when we try to virtualize a network?

VPNs, as described in Section 3.2, were one early success for virtual networking. They allowed carriers to present corporate customers with the illusion that they had their own private network, even though in reality they were sharing underlying links and switches with many other users. VPNs, however, only virtualize a few resources, notably addressing and routing tables. Network virtualization as commonly understood today goes further, virtualizing every aspect of networking. That means that a virtual network should support all the basic abstractions of a physical network. In this sense, they are analogous to the virtual machine, with its support of all the resources of a server: CPU, storage, I/O, and so on.

To this end, Virtual LANs (VLANs) are how we typically virtualize an L2 network. Supporting VLANs required a fairly simple extension to the original 802.1 header specification, inserting a 12-bit VLAN ID (VID) field between the SrcAddr and Type fields, as shown in Figure 1. (This VID is typically referred to as a VLAN Tag.) There are actually 32-bits inserted in the middle of the header, but the first 16-bits are used to preserve backwards compatibility with the original specification (they use Type = 0x8100 to indicate that this frame includes the VLAN extension); the other four bits hold control information used to prioritizing frames. This means it is possible to map 212^{12} = 4096 virtual networks onto a single physical LAN.

802.1Q VLAN tag embedded within an Ethernet (802.1) header.

VLANs proved to be quite useful to enterprises that wanted to isolate different internal groups (e.g., departments, labs), giving each of them the appearance of having their own private LAN. VLANs were also seen as a promising way to virtualize L2 networks in cloud datacenters, making it possible to give each tenant their own L2 network so as to isolate their traffic from the traffic of all other tenants. But there was a problem: the 4096 possible VLANs was not sufficient to account for all the tenants that a cloud might host, and to complicate matters, in a cloud the network needs to connect virtual machines rather than the physical machines that those VMs run on.

To address this problem, another standard called Virtual Extensible LAN (VXLAN) was introduced. Unlike the original approach, which effectively encapsulated a virtualized ethernet frame inside another ethernet frame, VXLAN encapsulates a virtual ethernet frame inside a UDP packet. This means a VXLAN-based virtual network (which is often referred to as an overlay network) runs on top of an IP-based network, which in turn runs on an underlying ethernet (or perhaps in just one VLAN of the underlying ethernet). VXLAN also makes it possible for one cloud tenant to have multiple VLANs of their own, which allows them to segregate their own internal traffic. This means it is ultimately possible to have a VLAN encapsulated in a VXLAN overlay encapsulated in a VLAN.

The powerful thing about virtualization is that when done right, it should be possible to nest one virtualized resource inside another virtualized resource, since after all, a virtual resource should behave just like a physical resources and we know how to virtualize physical resources! Said another way, being able to virtualize a virtual resource is the best proof that you have done a good job of virtualizing the original physical resource. To re-purpose the mythology of the World Turtle: It's virtual networks all the way down.

The actual VXLAN header is simple. It includes a 24-bit Virtual Network Id (VNI), plus some flag bits. It also implies a particular setting of the UDP source and destination port fields (see Section 5.1), with the destination port 4789 officially reserved for VXLANs. Figuring out how to uniquely identify virtual LANs (VLAN tags) and virtual networks (VXLAN VIDs) is the easy part. This is because encapsulation is the fundamental cornerstone of virtualization; all you need to add is an identifier that tells you which of many possible users this encapsulated packet belongs to.

The hard part is grappling with the idea of virtual networks being nested (encapsulated) inside virtual networks, which is networking’s version of recursion. The other challenge is understanding how to automate the creation, management, migration, and deletion of virtual networks, and on this front there is still a lot of room for improvement. Mastering this challenge will be at the heart of networking in the next decade, and while some of this work will undoubtedly happen in proprietary settings, there are open source network virtualization platforms (e.g., the Linux Foundation's Tungsten Fabric project) leading the way.

[!NOTE|label:Broader Perspective] To continue reading about the cloudification of the Internet, see The Cloud is Eating the Internet.

To learn more about the maturation of virtual networks, we recommend:

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