The Fenius project: enabling virtual circuits around the globe

ESnet has been one of the leading research and education networks in the adoption of virtual circuit technology, which has allowed ESnet customers to sidestep traditional limitations of wide area networking and transfer data at high speed between geographically distant sites at a minimal cost. Each day, tens of terabytes of scientific data flow over ESnet’s Science Data Network between supercomputers, clusters, data storage sites, and experimental data sources like the LHC at CERN.

Essentially, virtual circuits provide an Ethernet pipeline with guaranteed bandwidth between two locations. This traffic is isolated from the rest, allowing our users to run “impolite” protocols like UDP, which would otherwise clog up their regular Internet connection. Our homegrown software code-named OSCARS, enables ESnet to easily monitor this traffic for trends and engineer its route to plan for growth and rearrange capacity according to the needs of our customers.

This is a win-win situation for both us and our customers, and we’re not alone in recognizing this. An increasing number of global research and education backbones and exchange points are deploying such services and writing their own software to manage them: Internet2 is providing the ION service (previously called DCN) based on the OSCARS platform. Across the Atlantic GEANT is developing AutoBAHN, and SURFnet is using Nortel’s DRAC. An international consortium developed Harmony under the Phosphorus project and is now starting up GEYSERS. In Japan, AIST has been developing the G-lambda suite, while Korean KISTI is in the process of coding their DynamicKL project – and there are certainly other projects out there.

Can’t we all just talk?

Now for the bad news: since there isn’t a globally accepted standard for this kind of service, the different software suites don’t quite communicate with one another. OSCARS communicates using the OSCARS application interface, DRAC uses the DRAC interface, and so forth. This, unfortunately, stymies our ambitions to automatically “stitch” virtual circuits across multiple networks. With everyone speaking a different language, this is impossible to accomplish.

A solution is to have a standard software interface; then different implementations would be able to interoperate as long as they were compliant. There is a standards effort in progress by the Open Grid Forum Network Services Interface working group, but an actual standard is probably at least several months away.

A bit of history

Several software developers made an effort to solve the interoperability issue at the GLIF meeting co-located at Joint Techs back in early 2008. After a few presentations, it became evident that all of these APIs,  stripped of their cosmetic differences and special features, looked remarkably alike in terms of the raw pieces of information they handled.  The consensus of the meeting was that there is no real reason not to have basic interoperability, even if many of the bells and whistles would be stripped. The developers then formed the GNI API task force under the umbrella of the GLIF Control Plane technical group, with the objective of duct-taping an interoperability solution together until actual standards emerged.

A mythical reference

They conceived the Fenius project, dubbed for the legendary king of Scythia, Fenius Farsaid. According to Irish folklore, after the collapse of the Tower of Babel, Fenius collected the best parts of the confused tongues of the world and invented a new language.
The Fenius Project is a fairly simple idea: it defines a bare-bones API for virtual circuit services as an interim pseudo-standard. Then developers can easily write code to automatically translate between the “standard” API and a specific software suite such as OSCARS; several translators already exist. The rest of the project is software “glue” which allows Fenius to run standalone, publishing its API as a web service, and routing incoming requests to the specific translator.

We demonstrated Fenius with good results during last year’s GLIF conference in Daejeon, Korea, as well as during Supercomputing 2009 in Portland, OR, using Fenius to provision virtual circuit services on demand across three networks – via completely different technologies, and two different software suites – from a lab in Japan to the NICT booth on the conference showfloor.

The next step for the project is to update its “standard” API according to some important lessons learned during last year’s demos, and to become the de facto external interface of production virtual circuit facilities. We plan to make an appearance at this year’s GLIF conference in Geneva, as well as in Supercomputing 2010 in New Orleans, LA. Fenius is also slated to become a component of OpenDRAC soon.

We hope that Fenius will be able to provide ESnet customers and the international research and education community wider access to the network infrastructure, and that it will enable virtual circuits to become a truly global infrastructure capability in the service of science, research, and education worldwide.