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1.6 Requirements for a Distributed Services Platform

A truly distributed services platform requires the availability of DSNs that are placed as closely as possible to the applications. These DSNs are the enforcement or action points and can have various embodiments; for example, they can be integrated into NICs, appliances, or switches. Having as many services nodes as possible is the key to scaling, high performance, and low delay and jitter. The closer a DSN is to applications, the lesser the amount of traffic it needs to process, and the better the power profile becomes.

Services may appear to be well defined and not changing over time, but this is not the case. For example, new encapsulations or variations of old ones or different combinations of protocols and encapsulations are introduced over time. For this reason, DSNs need to be programmable in the management, control, and data planes. The control and management planes may be complicated, but they are not data intensive and are coded as software programs on standard CPUs. Data plane programmability is a crucial requirement because it determines the performance and the scaling of the architecture. Network devices that are data plane programmable are still pretty rare, even if there have been some attempts in the adapter space with devices that are typically called SmartNIC and in the switching/routing space using a domain-specific programming language called P4.

An excellent services platform is only as good as the monitoring and troubleshooting features that it implements. Monitoring has significantly evolved over the years, and its modern version is called telemetry. It is not just a name change; it is an architectural revamp on how performance is measured, collected, stored, and postprocessed. The more dynamic telemetry is and the less likely it is to introduce latency, the more useful it is. An ideal distributed services platform has “always-on telemetry” with no performance cost. Also, compliance considerations are becoming extremely important, and being able to observe, track, and correlate events is crucial.

Where do services apply? To answer this question, we need to introduce a minimum of terminology. A common way to draw a network diagram is with the network equipment on top, and the compute nodes at the bottom. If you superimpose a compass rose with the North on top, then the term North-South traffic means traffic between the public network (typically the Internet) and servers; the term East-West implies traffic between servers (see Figure 1-3).


FIGURE 1-3 North-South vs. East-West

Historically the North-South direction has been the focus of services such as firewall, SSL/TLS termination, VPN termination, and load balancing. Protecting the North-South direction is synonymous with protecting the periphery of the cloud or data center. For many years, it has been security managers’ primary goal because all the attacks originated on the outside, and the inside was composed of homogeneous, trusted users.

With the advent of public clouds, the change in the type of attacks, the need to compartmentalize large corporations for compliance reasons, the introduction of highly distributed microservice architectures, and remote storage, East-West traffic is now demanding the same level of services as the North-South connections.

East-West traffic requires better services performance than North-South for the following reasons:

  • Usually, the North-South traffic has a geographical dimension; for example, going through the Internet creates a lower bound to the delay of milliseconds, due to propagation delays. This is not the case for East-West traffic.

  • East-West traffic is easily one order of magnitude higher in bytes than North-South traffic, a phenomenon called “traffic amplification,” where the size of the response and internal traffic can be much larger, that is, “amplified,” compared to the inbound request. For this reason, it requires services with higher throughput.

  • With the advent of solid-state disks (SSDs), the storage access time has dramatically decreased, and delays associated with processing storage packets must be minimal.

  • In microservice architectures, what on the North-South direction may be a simple transaction is in reality composed of multiple interactions between microservices on the East-West direction. Any delay is critical because it is cumulative and can quickly result in performance degradation.

Institutions with sensitive data, such as banks or healthcare providers, are considering encrypting all the East-West traffic. It implies, for instance, that each communication between two microservices must be encrypted and decrypted: If the encryption service is not line-rate and low-latency, this will show up as degraded performance.

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