Essentially, we can write the equivalent of a device driver to synchronize the kernel state of these data structures with the hardware. Silicon switching ports can be made to appear like NICs to the OS. Thanks to Linux's Netlink model, a device driver can sit by the side and listen to everything that's going on with the kernel state -- interface up/down, routing entries added/deleted either by user or routing protocols, netfilter entries added or deleted -- and synchronize that state with the hardware. Furthermore, the driver can sync the state of counters from the hardware with the kernel state allowing native Linux tools such as ethtool, iptables, or /proc/net/dev to display the correct information, completely unaware that these values are coming from the hardware. Cumulus Networks has developed the first such solution, but others with a similar model may not be far away.
Looking toward an open future
By the end of the last century, a number of network protocols had gone out of fashion: DECnet, SNA, IPX. I remember distinctly the time when working on Cisco's Catalyst 6500 ASICs, we decided to stop supporting IPX. It was the last of the non-IP protocols that we had been supporting in the enterprise networks.
The open model of TCP/IP meant that many more people worked on improving it and using it in various applications compared to the closed nature of most other protocols. The development-by-committee model of OSI was no match for the "rough consensus, working code" model of the IETF and TCP/IP.
Similarly, Ethernet soon became the de facto physical media of choice. Starting from humble roots, the simple model of Ethernet wiped out pretty much all the competition from FDDI and Token Ring to SONET and ATM at the other end of the spectrum. Customers can now focus on TCP/IP with Ethernet as the common networking stack on which they can build their applications.
With the rest of the data center ecosystem open, the network OS is the last bastion of the closed model. With Linux as the network OS, users can now evolve networks and applications together, so that the whole is more than just the sum of its parts.
Linux as the network OS is an idea whose time has come.
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