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Nokia and ARM would like to revamp the aging TCP/IP stack

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December 15, 2015

In the last few days, Nokia and ARM have been at the heart of a bid to revamp the aging TCP/IP stack in an effort to make it better suited to various networks that need to operate at very high speed and/or low latency.

However, among the long list of industry alliances at the intersection of telecom providers and several ISPs, this looks like one with a genuine contribution to make to the evolution of future standards, including 5G.

Whether this will happen or not still remains to be seen, however. The network connection itself is only a part of the total telecom and ISP platforms these days, and in the evolution of 5G, it will be critical that the 3GPP’s core standards are closely aligned to work currently being done in the IP, cloud and data areas as well.

LTE may be IP-based, but it was a complicated process to get IP and mobile technologies fully married together at the time, and even as networks get faster and more virtualized, there is still a real risk that the venerable TCP/IP stack is failing to keep up.

But in the 5G market segment, there could be the opportunity to develop the next generations of these two key network standards in parallel that would be crucial to the success and the deployability of 5G, given that one important reason for developing the technology at all is to enable the next waves of the Web, the Internet of Things and the future Tactile Internet.

Many people still believe that a critical success factor for 5G will be a fully revamped TCP/IP stack, optimized for the massively varied use cases of the next mobile generation, for cloud services, virtualization and software-defined networking (SDN).

That is the aim of the new OpenFastPath (OFP) Foundation, founded by Nokia Networks, ARM and industrial IT services player Enea.

This aims to create an open source TCP/IP stack which can accelerate the move towards SDN in wireless carrier and enterprise networks.

Other sign-ups include AMD, Cavium, Freescale, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the ARM-associated open source initiative, Linaro.

Nokia and its various allies all hope to accelerate the platforms to create open but secure network applications, which harness IP packet processing and will help support a whole new range of use cases, some requiring very high throughput, others ultra-low latency, or both.

These are all central requirements for 5G technology. The new Foundation is a non-profit, open source software initiative which promises to build an innovative developer community around a standardized and accelerated new-generation TCP/IP stack, the FastPath Stack, which would be optimized for SDN-ready network functions in wireless carrier or enterprise networks.

As its name suggests, it would also support faster packet forwarding, via lower IP latency, combined with higher capacity, and so reduce deployment and management costs by making networks more efficient and more resilient.

It would consist of a high performance user space TCP/IP stack. User space networking aims to get TCP/IP out of the OS. Kernels are code-intensive, and using them for packet processing involves a number of operations like moving packets into memory, then to the OS, then back out to the interface which could be streamlined to reduce network latency.

For example, the BBC has built a user space stack to allow its video servers to push out HD video and user space networking, also seen as an important way to accelerate mobile network processing as a whole.

In the initial release of OFP, some functions will still have to be handed off to the operating system or another software packet processor, but that will change as the features are completed.

A so-called optimized callback-based zero-copy socket API aims to keep packet processing in user space as far as possible, for instance.

The new fast-path TCP/IP stack will be based on the open source FreeBSD operating system and will initially comprise the User Datagram Protocol (UDP), Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), and Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP).

Other functions will be added in the future. The Foundation will also build an open source community to develop a best-in-class IP stack, and draw on best practice and innovation from existing proprietary optimized IP implementations.

Nokia says it will meet the “stringent requirements for core and radio applications in the cloud”, unlike older implementations, and this may be its key differentiator.

The stack will be optimized for ODP (Open Data Plane) programming interfaces, which enables hardware acceleration of the fast-paths, and allows the protocol to be programmable via the ODP environment.

This will be important to various cloud applications and to communications processing on bare metal switches in an SDN world.

As SDN moves into the mainstream of operator and enterprise plans, IT solutions will increasingly rely on transport layer capabilities, and so both layers must evolve in tandem.

That IP transport layer, whether supported on wired or wireless networks, will itself have to adapt to the new requirements of the IoT and beyond, a process which will need to draw on technology and skills from the telcos and the open source IT community.

Source: Nokia and ARM.

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