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Software Router Smashes Speed Records

A novel approach to networking will enable new Internet protocols.

Researchers in South Korea have built a networking router that transmits data at record speeds from components found in most high-end desktop computers. A team from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology created the router, which transmits data at nearly 40 gigabits per second–many times faster than the previous record for such a device.

The techniques used by the researchers could lead to a number of breakthroughs, including the use of cheaper commodity chips, such as those made by Intel and Nvidia, in high-performance routers, in place of custom-made hardware. The software developed by the researchers could also serve as a testbed for novel networking protocols that might eventually replace the decades-old ones on which the Internet currently runs.

Most routers use custom hardware to route data as it passes between computer networks. Software routers perform the same tasks using commodity hardware–by mimicking the behavior of a hardware router in software. Commercial software routers from companies such as Vyatta can typically only attain transfer data at speeds of up to three gigabits per second. That isn’t fast enough to take advantage of the full speed of a typical network card, which operates at 10 gigabits per second.

“We started with the humble goal of being the first to get a PC router to 10 [gigabits per second], but we pushed it to 40,” says Sue Moon, leader of the lab in which the research was conducted. Her students Sangjin Han and Keon Jang developed software called PacketShader that made this possible. PacketShader uses a computer’s graphics processing unit (GPU) to help process packets of data sent across a network.

Modern routers are rarely dumb switches anymore. They are often called upon to manipulate packets in a number of different ways as they pass through. GPUs are ideal for this purpose because they can process data in parallel, which means they can handle several packets of data at once. According to Moon, a GPU is much faster at handling some packet-processing tasks, such as authenticating or encrypting all of the packets in a stream. When the GPU takes over these tasks, it gives the central processing unit (CPU) breathing room to handle other things that are more serial in nature, such processing several packets in turn to detect attempts to break into a network.

Mark Handley, a professor of networked systems at University College London, points out that for basic packet forwarding, which isn’t likely to overwhelm a computer’s CPU, there is no advantage to strapping the GPU onto the system. However, he agrees that the GPU is very well suited to encrypting or authenticating packets.

Gianluca Iannaccone, an engineer at Intel Labs Berkeley who is familiar with PacketShader, says it could slash the number of physical machine needed to comprise a terabit-per-second software router to one-third of what his research has previously indicated would be required.

“One terabit is the entry point for enterprise-grade routers–the routers in the core of the Internet,” says Iannaccone. His work on a system called RouteBricks points to a future in which routers aren’t the specialized hardware they are now, but instead function as software running on pools of servers. Lash enough software routers together that run at 40 gigabits per second, and you get what is essentially a single-terabit router. Using such a system, routers might some day run completely in software.

“We can expect killer apps out of this,” says KyoungSoo Park, another professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology who was involved with the project. “You can build an interesting packet- or network-management system on top of a PC-based software router that can’t be implemented with a hardware router. Ultimately, you can experiment with new protocols that are not used in today’s Internet.”

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