MIT is dragging hard-wired network chips into the agile era

Cloud computing is changing the demands on networks more quickly than ever. Now researchers say it’s possible to program routers all the way down to their packet-forwarding chips in the quest to keep up.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and five other organizations have found a way to make data-center routers more programmable without making them slower. This could allow enterprises to take advantage of new traffic and congestion management algorithms without replacing their routers.

The project takes SDN (software-defined networking) beyond the control plane, where things like configuration are handled, and into the data plane that actually forwards packets. Now programmers can change how the network decides which packets to send and which to keep in a buffer, for example. Eventually, that might mean deploying networks with fewer routers.

Today, the chips out at the edge of routers that actually switch packets are hard-coded with algorithms for deciding things like which packets to drop when a network is congested. The algorithms are written to make sure each application performs as it should. For example, live video may need less delay, while accounting software needs to avoid losing packets.