P4-Programmable Connectivity Enhances Next Generation Mobile Infrastructure

Prem Jonnalagadda | Feb 28, 2020

The momentum and excitement surrounding P4-programmable switching originated in data center networks. In the past decade, these networks have been revolutionized through the adoption of software-defined networking (SDN) and virtualization. With P4-programmable switches, like those based on our Tofino and Tofino 2 switch ASICs, adding programmability and software control at the data plane is an easy, logical next step for data centers.

As faster mobile network data rates put a strain on the existing infrastructure, we’re starting to see new applications emerge for P4 programmability within the mobile network. In most cases, mobile network operators (MNOs) are leveraging virtualization and SDN, so taking advantage of P4 programmability is quite attractive. P4 lets MNOs create efficient mobile network by customizing which protocols to support, and where in the network they need to support these protocols. P4 switches also support software upgrades for new standards, as well as differentiating features as they become necessary to deploy.

P4-Based Network Packet Broker (NPB) for Mobile Networks

One of the use cases we’ve seen of P4-programmable switches for next-generation mobile networks is offering switch-based network packet broker services, which is a project we’re working on with SoftBank in Japan. In our joint project, SoftBank developed its NPB solution using a Tofino-based white box switch, which is running a P4 program they have developed.

NPB services are a mandatory part of a wireless network because they provide security and monitoring tools with access to traffic from the network. NPBs are needed at base stations and are essentially a network within the network, taking real-time traffic feeds, perform load balancing and forwarding those packets to the relevant monitoring or security tools. Take a look at a demonstration of SoftBank’s P4-programmable Tofino based Network Packet Broker solution.

As shown in a video of the solution, the Tofino-based solution provides a high-performance GPRS Tunneling Protocol (GTP) traffic packet brokering function, separating out the GTP control plane and user plane traffic and performing different functions on each. The demo setup for this solution was made possible with help from our partner, Apresia Systems. This new solution enables the MNO to disaggregate the visibility and security functions from the packet broker onto standalone servers that are based on Intel architecture CPUs for performance and cost effectiveness.

P4 Forwarding in Edge Computing

While the NPB application is a clever one, there are other 5G network use cases for P4-programmable switches. We are working with partners that want to use Tofino for building multi-access edge computing (MEC) platforms. MNOs are deploying these MEC platforms at the network edge to better deliver low-latency and high-throughput services. Adding P4-programmable switching to these servers means better support for network slicing, even more granular SDN control, and the ability to tune a switch for specific protocols.

Enhancing Built-in Scalability

P4 programmability enhances the built-in scalability that is designed into 5G networks. By adding in the real-time, per-packet, nanosecond-scale visibility with in-band network telemetry (INT) and our Deep Insight networking and analytics software, you get a network that is faster to root-cause, easier to maintain, and superior in delivering end-user experience for the subscribers and customers.

These applications are just the start of how P4 programmability will benefit next-generation mobile networks.

For more information on SoftBank’s P4-based NPB, please contact hiroshi.ota@g.softbank.co.jp