Chapter 5: Switch OS

This chapter describes the operating system running on every bare-metal switch. A good mental model is to think of this as analogous to a server OS: there is a general-purpose processor running a Linux-based OS, plus a “packet forwarding accelerator” similar in spirit to a GPU.

The most common foundation for this Switch OS is Open Network Linux (ONL), an open source project of the Open Compute Project. ONL starts with the Debian distribution of Linux, and augments it with support for hardware that is unique to switches, including the Small Form-factor Pluggable (SFP) interface module shown in Figure 18.

This chapter does not go into these low-level device driver details, but instead focuses on the Northbound Interface (NBI) exported by the Switch OS to the control plane, whether that control plane runs on-switch (as a program running in user space on top of the Switch OS) or off-switch (as an SDN controller like ONOS). And as introduced in Chapter 3, we will use Stratum as our concrete example of the layer of software that implements this NBI on top of ONL. Stratum is sometimes called a Thin Switch OS, where the operative word is “thin” because it essentially implements an API shim. What’s interesting about the shim is the set of APIs it supports, and correspondingly, the vast majority of this chapter focuses on those APIs.

5.1 Thin Switch OS

This section describes the set of components that implement an SDN-ready Northbound Interface for the Switch OS running on a bare-metal switch. The details are drawn from Stratum, an open source project at the ONF that started with production-quality code made available by Google. Figure 27 gives a high-level overview of Stratum, and to re-emphasize, it’s the exposed interfaces—P4Runtime, gNMI, and gNOI—that are the important takeaways of this chapter. We show these few implementation details in this section only as a way of grounding the description of an end-to-end workflow for developers implementing SDN-based solutions.


Figure 27. High-level schematic of Stratum, a Thin Switch OS running on top of Open Networking Linux.

Stratum exports three primary Northbound Interfaces: (1) P4Runtime is used to control the switch’s forwarding behavior; (2) gNMI is used to configure the switch; and (3) gNOI is used to access other operational variables on the switch. All three interfaces are gRPC services (not shown), which implies there is a corresponding set of Protocol Buffers (protobufs) that specify the API methods and supported parameters of each. A tutorial on gRPC and protobufs is beyond the scope of this book, but a brief introduction to both can be found online.

Further Reading

gRPC. Computer Networks: A Systems Approach, 2020.

Protocol Buffers. Computer Networks: A Systems Approach, 2020.

The important take-away is that by using protobufs and gRPC, Stratum need not be concerned with the long list of formatting, reliability, backward compatibility, and security challenges that protocols (including OpenFlow) have historically spent a great deal of time worrying about. In addition, protobufs serve as a well-defined target for the code generated by the P4 compiler, which is to say, the P4 toolchain outputs protobufs that specify the types and arguments for the P4Runtime interface. This API, along with the client- and server-side stubs that implement it, are (mostly) auto-generated. Section 5.2 describes the toolchain for creating this runtime contract in more detail.

Below Stratum, the architecture takes advantage of two components. The first is a Software Development Kit (SDK) for the on-board switching chip(s). These are provided by the switch vendor, and in the case of Broadcom, it roughly corresponds to the OF-DPA layer described in Section 4.5. Barefoot provides a similar SDK for their Tofino chip. You can think of these SDKs as similar to device drivers in a traditional OS: they are used to indirectly read and write memory locations on the corresponding chip. The second is the ONL Platform (ONLP), which exports the Platform API shown in Figure 27. This API provides access to hardware counters, monitors, status variables, and so on.

As a simple example, which helps illustrate the fundamental difference between fixed-function and programmable pipelines, Broadcom’s SDK defines a bcm_l3_route_create method to update the L3 forwarding table, whereas Barefoot’s corresponding pipeline-independent method is bf_table_write.

Internal to Stratum, the rest of the components shown in Figure 27 are primarily designed to make Stratum vendor-agnostic. In the case of a programmable chip like Tofino, Stratum is largely pass-through: P4Runtime calls that come from above are directly passed through to the Barefoot SDK. In the case of a fixed-function chip like Tomahawk, Stratum maintains the runtime state it needs to translate the P4Runtime calls into their Broadcom SDK counterpart. To a first approximation, this implies mapping P4Runtime calls in switch.p4 (Section 4.5.1) into Broadcom SDK calls. For example, a P4Runtime call to update table entries in a program like switch.p4 (Section 4.5.1) would be mapped into a Broadcom SDK call to update entries in one of the ASIC tables.

5.2 P4Runtime

You can think of the P4Runtime interface shown in Figure 27 as the server-side RPC stub for controlling the switch. There is a corresponding client-side stub, which is similarly included in the SDN Controller. Together, they implement the P4Runtime Contract between the controller and the switch. The toolchain for generating this contract is shown in Figure 28, where as in earlier figures, we represent the original P4 forwarding program as an abstract graph rather than with actual P4 source code.


Figure 28. P4 toolchain achieves ASIC-independence and auto-generates P4Runtime Contract (represented as a Protocol Buffer specification).

One key takeaway from Figure 28 is that the P4 compiler generates both the binary that is loaded into each switching chip, and the runtime interface used to control the switching chip (indirectly via the Switch OS).1 The compiler does this with the help of a vendor-specific backend, where Figure 28 shows two possible examples. Note that these vendor-specific backends have to be written for a specific architecture model (as defined by arch.p4 in this example). In other words, today, it is a combination of the P4 language, the ASIC-specific backend, and the architecture model that defines the programming environment for injecting functionality into the data plane.


When we say the binary is loaded into the switching chip, we are adopting familiar terminology from general-purpose processors. The exact process is ASIC-specific, and might include initializing various on-chip tables via the SDK.

The final piece of the end-to-end story is the connection between the runtime contract and the original program loaded into the data plane. Using the simple forwarding program presented in Section 4.4 as an example, we see that forward.p4 defines a lookup table, which we restate here:

table ipv4_lpm {
    key = {
        hdr.ipv4.dstAddr: lpm;
    actions = {
    size = 1024;
    default_action = drop();

Correspondingly, the file forward.p4info output by the compiler specifies the P4Runtime Contract. As shown in the following example, it contains enough information to fully inform both the controller and switch on how to format and interpret the set of gRPC methods needed to insert, read, modify, and delete entries in this table. For example, the table definition identifies the field to match (hdr.ipv4.dstAddr) and the type of match (LPM), along with the three possible actions.

actions {
    preamble {
        id: 16800567
        name: "NoAction"
        alias: "NoAction"
actions {
    preamble {
        id: 16805608
        name: "MyIngress.drop"
        alias: "drop"
actions {
    preamble {
        id: 16799317
        name: "MyIngress.ipv4_forward"
        alias: "ipv4_forward"
    params {
        id: 1
        name: "dstAddr"
        bitwidth: 48
    params {
        id: 2
        name: "port"
        bitwidth: 9
tables {
    preamble {
        id: 33574068
        name: "MyIngress.ipv4_lpm"
        alias: "ipv4_lpm"
    match_fields {
        id: 1
        name: "hdr.ipv4.dstAddr"
        bitwidth: 32
        match_type: LPM
    action_refs {
        id: 16799317
    action_refs {
        id: 16805608
    action_refs {
        id: 16800567
    size: 1024

The gRPC toolchain takes over from there. For this to work, the toolchain must be aware of which P4 language elements are controllable, and hence, available to be “exposed” by p4runtime.proto. Such information is contained in forward.p4info, which specifies exactly the set of controllable elements and their attributes as defined in the source P4 program.2 The table element is one obvious example, but there are others, including counters and meters, which are used to report status information up to the controller and to allow the controller to specify a QoS rate, respectively. However, neither of these are included in our example program.


In principle, this P4Info file is not strictly required, as the controller and switch could use the source P4 program to derive all the information they need to handle P4Runtime methods. However, P4Info makes that much easier by extracting the relevant information from the P4 program and providing them in a more structured protobuf-defined format, which is straightforward to parse using a protobuf library.

Finally, a controller actually writes an entry to this table. While in general this controller would run on top of ONOS, and so indirectly interact with the switch, we can look at a simpler example in which a Python program implements the controller, and writes an entry directly into the table (assisted by a P4Runtime library).

import p4runtime_lib.helper
table_entry = p4info_helper.buildTableEntry(
        "hdr.ipv4.dstAddr": (dst_ip_addr, 32)
        "dstAddr": next_hop_mac_addr,
        "port": outport,

5.3 gNMI and gNOI

A core challenge of configuring and operating any network device is to define the set of variables available for operators to GET and SET on the device, with the additional requirement that this dictionary of variables should be uniform across devices (i.e., be vendor-agnostic). The Internet has already gone through one decades-long exercise defining such a dictionary, resulting in the Management Information Base (MIB) used in conjunction with SNMP. But the MIB was more focused on reading device status variables than writing device configuration variables, where the latter has historically been done using the device’s Command Line Interface (CLI). One consequence of the SDN transformation is to nudge the industry towards support for programmatic configuration APIs. This means revisiting the information model for network devices.

The main technical advance that was not prevalent in the early days of SNMP and MIB is the availability of pragmatic modeling languages, where YANG is the leading choice to have emerged over the last few years. YANG—which stands for Yet Another Next Generation, a name chosen to poke fun at how often a do-over proves necessary—can be viewed as a restricted version of XSD, which is a language for defining a schema for XML. YANG defines the structure of the data, but unlike XSD, it is not XML-specific. Instead, YANG can be used in conjunction with different over-the-wire message formats, including XML, but also protobufs and JSON. If these acronyms are unfamiliar, or the distinction between a markup language and a schema for a markup language is fuzzy, a gentle introduction is available online.

Further Reading

Markup Languages (XML). Computer Networks: A Systems Approach, 2020.

What’s important about going in this direction is that the data model that defines the semantics of the variables available to be read and written is available in a programmatic form; it’s not just text in a standards document. Moreover, while it is true that all hardware vendors promote the unique capabilities of their products, it is not a free-for-all, with each vendor defining a unique model. This is because the network operators that buy network hardware have a strong incentive to drive the models for similar devices towards convergence, and vendors have an equally strong incentive to adhere to those models. YANG makes the process of creating, using, and modifying models programmable and hence, adaptable to this iterative process.

This is where an industry-wide standardization effort, called OpenConfig, comes into play. OpenConfig is a group of network operators trying to drive the industry towards a common set of configuration models using YANG as its modeling language. OpenConfig is officially agnostic as to the over-the-wire protocol used to access on-device configuration and status variables, but gNMI (gRPC Network Management Interface) is one approach it is actively pursuing. And as you might guess from its name, gNMI uses gRPC (which in turn runs on top of HTTP/2). This means gNMI also adopts protobufs as the way it specifies the data actually communicated over the HTTP connection. Thus, gNMI is intended as a standard management interface for network devices.

For completeness, note that NETCONF is another of the post-SNMP protocols for communicating configuration information to network devices. OpenConfig also works with NETCONF, but our current assessment is that gNMI has the weight of industry behind it as the future management protocol. For this reason, it is the one we highlight in our description of the full SDN software stack.

OpenConfig defines a hierarchy of object types. For example, the YANG model for network interfaces looks like this:

Module: openconfig-interfaces
	+--rw interfaces	 							
		+--rw interface*   [name]
			+--rw name
			+--rw config
		 	 |   ...	
			+--ro state
			 |    ...	 							
			+--rw hold-time	
			 |    ...	 
			+--rw subinterfaces 							
		    	 |    ...

This is a base model that can be augmented, for example, to model an Ethernet interface:

Module: openconfig-if-ethernet
	augment /ocif:interfaces/ocif:interface:
		+--rw ethernet
		+--rw config
		 |	+--rw mac-address?
		 |	+--rw auto-negotiate?
		 |	+--rw duplex-mode?
		 |	+--rw port-speed?
		 |	+--rw enable-flow-control? 
		+--ro state
			+--ro mac-address?
			+--ro auto-negotiate?
			+--ro duplex-mode?
			+--ro port-speed?
			+--ro enable-flow-control?
			+--ro hw-mac-address?
			+--ro counters

Other similar augmentations might be defined to support link aggregation, IP address assignment, VLAN tags, and so on.

Each model in the OpenConfig hierarchy defines a combination of a configuration state that can be both read and written by the client (denoted rw in the examples) and an operational state that reports device status (denoted ro in the examples, indicating it is read-only from the client-side). This distinction between declarative configuration state and runtime feedback state is a fundamental aspect of any network device interface, where OpenConfig is explicitly focused on generalizing the latter to include network telemetry data the operator needs to track.

Having a meaningful set of models is necessary, but a full configuration system includes other elements as well. In our case, there are three important points to make about the relationship between Stratum and the OpenConfig models.

The first is that Stratum depends on a YANG toolchain. Figure 29 shows the steps involved in translating a set of YANG-based OpenConfig models into the client-side and server-side gRPC stubs used by gNMI. The gNMI Server shown in the figure is the same as the gNMI interface portal shown in Figure 27. The toolchain supports multiple target programming languages (Stratum happens to use C++), where the client and server sides of the gRPC need not be written in the same language.


Figure 29. YANG toolchain used to generate gRPC-based runtime for gNMI.

Keep in mind that YANG is not tied to either gRPC or gNMI. The toolchain is able to start with the very same OpenConfig models but instead produce XML or JSON representations for the data being read from or written to network devices using, for example, NETCONF or RESTCONF, respectively. But in our context, the target is protobufs, which Stratum uses to support gNMI running over gRPC.

The second point is that gNMI defines a specific set of gRPC methods to operate on these models. The set is defined collectively as a Service in the protobuf specification:

Service gNMI {
    rpc Capabilities(CapabilityRequest)
        returns (CapabilityResponse);
    rpc Get(GetRequest) returns (GetResponse);
    rpc Set(SetRequest) returns (SetResponse);
    rpc Subscribe(stream SubscribeRequest)
        returns (stream SubscribeResponse);

The Capabilities method is used to retrieve the set of model definitions supported by the device. The Get and Set methods are used to read and write the corresponding variable defined in some models. The Subscribe method is used to set up a stream of telemetry updates from the device. The corresponding arguments and return values (e.g., GetRequest, GetResponse) are defined by a protobuf Message and include various fields from the YANG models. A given field is specified by giving its fully qualified path name in the data model tree.

The third point is that Stratum does not necessarily care about the full range of OpenConfig models. This is because—as a Switch OS designed to support a centralized Controller—Stratum cares about configuring various aspects of the data plane but is not typically involved in configuring control plane protocols like BGP. Such control plane protocols are no longer implemented on the switch in an SDN-based solution (although they remain in scope for the Network OS, which implements their centralized counterpart). To be specific, Stratum tracks the following OpenConfig models: Interfaces, VLANs, QoS, and LACP (link aggregation), in addition to a set of system and platform variables (of which the switch’s fan speed is everyone’s favorite example).

We conclude this section by briefly turning our attention to gNOI, but there isn’t a lot to say. This is because the underlying mechanism used by gNOI is exactly the same as for gNMI, and in the larger scheme of things, there is little difference between a switch’s configuration interface and its operations interface. Generally speaking, persistent state is handled by gNMI (and a corresponding YANG model is defined), whereas clearing or setting ephemeral state is handled by gNOI. It is also the case that non-idempotent actions like reboot and ping tend to fall under gNOI’s domain. In any case, the two are closely enough aligned to collectively be referred to as gNXI.

As an illustrative example of what gNOI is used for, the following is the protobuf specification for the System service:

service System {
    rpc Ping(PingRequest)
	returns (stream PingResponse) {}
    rpc Traceroute(TracerouteRequest)
        returns (stream TracerouteResponse) {}
    rpc Time(TimeRequest)
	returns (TimeResponse) {}
    rpc SetPackage(stream SetPackageRequest)
        returns (SetPackageResponse) {}
    rpc Reboot(RebootRequest)
	returns (RebootResponse) {}
    // ...

where, for example, the following protobuf message defines the RebootRequest parameter:

message RebootRequest {
    RebootMethod method = 1;
    // Delay in nanoseconds before issuing reboot.
    uint64 delay = 2; 
    // Informational reason for the reboot.
    string message = 3;
    // Optional sub-components to reboot.
    repeated types.Path subcomponents = 4;
    // Force reboot if sanity checks fail.
    bool force = 5; 

As a reminder, if you are unfamiliar with protobufs, a brief overview is available online.

Further Reading

Protocol Buffers. Computer Networks: A Systems Approach, 2020.

5.4 SONiC

In the same way that SAI is an industry-wide switch abstraction (see Section 4.5), SONiC is a vendor-agnostic Switch OS that is gaining a lot of momentum in the industry. It was originally open-sourced by Microsoft and continues to serve as the Switch OS for the Azure Cloud. SONiC leverages SAI as a vendor-agnostic SDK and includes a switch-customized Linux distribution, which is to say, Stratum and SONiC try to fill the same need. Today their respective approaches are largely complementary, with the two open source communities working towards a “best of both worlds” solution. This effort is known as PINS, which stands for P4 Integrated Network Stack.

Both SONiC and Stratum support a configuration interface, so unifying those will be a matter of reconciling their respective data models and toolchains. The main distinction is Stratum’s support for programmable forwarding pipelines (including both P4 and P4Runtime), versus the least common denominator approach to forwarding taken by SAI. Developers on the two open-source projects are working together to define a roadmap that will make it possible for interested networks to take advantage of programmable pipelines in an incremental and low-risk way.

The goal of this effort is both (1) to enable remote SDN Controllers/Apps to interact with SAI using P4Runtime and gNMI, and (2) to enable SAI extensions using P4 so as to improve feature velocity in the data plane. Both goals rely on a new representation of the SAI behavioral model and pipeline based on a P4 program (the so called sai.p4 program shown in Figure 26 of Section 4.6). If you take one thing away from this reconciliation effort, it should be that embracing a programmable pipeline (and corresponding toolchain) is what facilitates doing something like this.