Chapter 10: Future of SDN

It is still early days for SDN. Cloud-hosted control planes are being deployed in production networks, but we are only just starting to see SDN being applied to access networks and programmable pipelines being used to introduce new data plane functionality. Enterprises have adopted network virtualization and SD-WAN to varying degrees, but there are still a lot more traditional networks than software-defined ones.

As the technology matures and the APIs stabilize we expect to see increased adoption of the use cases discussed earlier, but it may be new use cases still on the horizon that have the biggest impact on the role SDN eventually plays. Indeed, the ability to support capabilities that were impossible in traditional networks is a great part of the promise of SDN.

This chapter looks at a promising opportunity, revolving around the verification of correctness. Networks are notoriously difficult to make verifiably robust and secure against failures, attacks, and configuration mistakes. While network verification has been a field of interest for several years, the lack of clear abstractions in networking has limited the progress that can be made. Most networks are still built using closed/proprietary software and complex/fixed-function hardware, whose correctness is hard to prove and whose design has unknown provenance. The distributed algorithms that determine how networks operate are notoriously difficult to reason about, with BGP being a classic example of a protocol whose failure modes have kept researchers and practitioners occupied for decades.

The emergence of 5G networks and applications will only exacerbate the situation. 5G networks will connect not only smart phones and people, but also everything from doorbells, to lights, refrigerators, self-driving cars, and drones. If we cannot correctly configure and secure these networks, the risk of cyber disasters is much worse than anything experienced to date.

A critical capability for a reliable and secure Internet is verifiability: the ability to ensure that every packet in the network follows an operator-specified path and encounters only a set of forwarding rules within every device that the operator intended. Nothing more and nothing less.

Experience has shown that verification works best in settings where the overall system is constructed in a compositional (i.e., disaggregated) manner. Being able to reason about small pieces makes verification tractable, and the reasoning needed to stitch the components together into the composite system can also lead to insights. With disaggregation as the foundation, verifiability follows from (a) the ability to state intent at the network level rather than at the box level, and (b) the ability to observe behavior at fine granularity and in real-time. This is exactly the value SDN brings to the table, which leads to optimism that verifiable closed-loop control is now within reach.

Further Reading

N. Foster, et. al. Using Deep Programmability to Put Network Owners in Control. ACM SIGCOMM Computer Communication Review, October 2020.

Figure 60 illustrates the basic idea. The software stack described in this book is augmented with the measurement, code generation, and verification elements needed for verifiable closed-loop control. Fine-grained measurements can be implemented using INT (Inband Network Telemetry), which allows every packet to be stamped by the forwarding elements to indicate the path it took, the queuing delay it experienced, and the rules it matched. These measurements can then be analyzed and fed back into code generation and formal verification tools. This closed loop complements the intrinsic value of disaggregation, which makes it possible to reason about correctness-by-construction.


Figure 60. INT generates fine-grain measurements, which in turn feed a closed control loop that verifies the network’s behavior.

The goal is to enable network operators to specify a network’s behavior top-down, and then verifying the correctness across each interface. At the lowest level, P4 programs specify how packets are processed; these programs are compiled to run on the forwarding plane elements. Such an approach represents a fundamental new capability that has not been possible in conventional designs, based on two key insights.

First, while network control planes are inherently complicated, a P4 data plane captures ground truth for the network—i.e., how it forwards packets—and is therefore an attractive platform for deploying verification technologies. By observing and then validating behavior at the data plane level, it is possible to reduce the trusted computing base: the switch operating system, driver, and other low-level components do not need to be trusted. Moreover, whereas the control plane tends to be written in a general-purpose language and is correspondingly complex, the data plane is necessarily simple: it is ultimately compiled to an efficient, feed-forward pipeline architecture with simple data types and limited state. While verifying general-purpose software is impossible in the general case, data plane verification is both powerful and practical.

This claim of practicality is grounded in the current state-of-the-art. Once the forwarding behavior is defined and known, then forwarding table state defines forwarding behavior. For example, if everything is known to be IPv4-forwarded, then the forwarding table state in all routers is enough to define the network behavior. This idea has been reduced to practice by techniques like Veriflow and Header Space Analysis (HSA), and is now available commercially. Knowing that this state is enough to verify networks with fixed forwarding behavior means that we are “merely” adding one new degree-of-freedom: allowing the network operator to program the forwarding behavior (and evolve it over time) using P4. The use of P4 to program the data plane is key: the language carefully excludes features such as loops and pointer-based data structures, which typically make analysis impractical. To read more about the opportunity, we recommend a paper by Jed Liu and colleagues.

Further Reading

J. Liu, et. al. p4v: Practical Verification for Programmable Data Planes. ACM SIGCOMM 2018.

The second insight is that, in addition to building tools for analyzing network programs, it is important also to develop technologies that map the high-level intent of the network operator to code that implements that intent. One of the challenges of current approaches to network verification is that they take existing network equipment, with their complex distributed control planes, as their starting point, and build mathematical models of how those control planes behave. If the reality doesn’t precisely match the model, then verification won’t ensure that the network behaves as required. But with the centralized control model of SDN, the control plane is designed to map a centrally specified request into a set of control directives that can be implemented in the data plane. And we are starting to see systems in which the SDN control plane itself is compiled from a high level specification of its desired properties. Thus we can hope to see control planes that are correct by construction, rather than trying to build models that accurately capture the behavior of historically hard-to-analyze systems like BGP.1


It’s hard to imagine BGP ever going away entirely for interdomain routing, but at least for the large set of intradomain use cases the chance to design for verifiability seems possible.


Figure 61. Projecting into the future, with Phase 3 of SDN focusing on verifiable, top-down control of network behavior.

To put this all in an historical context, Figure 61 illustrates a view of three phases of SDN. It is fair to say that we are in the early stages of phase 2, where the most advanced operators have been able to take control of their software, via disaggregated control planes, and of their packet processing, via P4-programmable data planes. We see an emerging third phase, during which verifiable closed loop control will empower network operators to take full ownership of the software that defines their networks. Not only will they be able to determine the behavior of their networks through software, but they will be able to provide that the network is implementing their intent. Just as the hardware industry has developed high confidence that chips will work as intended before they go into manufacturing, network operators will have confidence that their networks are reliable, secure, and meeting their specified objectives.