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Lead Image © Michael Roder, Fotolia.com

Software-defined networking in OpenStack with the Neutron module

Neutron Dance

Article from ADMIN 34/2016
In classical network settings, software-defined networking (SDN) is a nice add-on, but in clouds, virtual networks are an essential part of the environment. OpenStack integrates SDN technology through the Neutron module.

If you have studied the SDN, you probably know something about cloud computing. SDN would not be as widespread as it is today if cloud solutions such as OpenNebula or OpenStack did not include SDN as an integral component. This article takes a look at Neutron, the OpenStack module that handles SDN management.

SDN Basics

SDN means decoupling management functionality in the network from the switch hardware. Only dumb switches appear in SDN environments: Their task is merely to forward packets from one port to another. They do not split the network into logical segments.

The reason for this simplicity is the need for automation. The configuration of a conventional switch is mostly static; only an admin can change it. But clouds are supposed to work as automatically as possible, and it would be impractical in a cloud to have to change the switch configuration for a new virtual local area network (VLAN) manually once a new customer registers.

Rather than depending on switches, the VLAN function for clouds is provided by the individual computers of the installation. Whatever runs on the computers of the cloud can be configured and automated from the cloud.

The key to SDN is two cloud components: On the one hand, an API interface, typically using the RESTful principle, fields commands from the users, and, on the other hand, agents usually implement the desired configurations on the hosts.

Under the hood, Open vSwitch is almost always used to implement virtual switches on each host. The agents of the cloud solutions thus define a suitable Open vSwitch configuration on the hosts and empower customers to operate virtual networks.

What sounds complicated in theory is easily explained based on the example of OpenStack Neutron. Neutron is the OpenStack SDN component responsible for ensuring that virtual machines (VMs) have a functioning network, that is, a virtual customer network as well as a connection to the outside world.

Neutron As an Abstraction Layer

Neutron acts as an abstraction layer with its own plugin mechanism, which gives it the flexibility to incorporate Open vSwitch [1], MidoNet by Midokura [2], OpenContrail [3] by Juniper, and other SDN solutions – Neutron has a plugin for almost all SDN approaches on the market.

Variety also has disadvantages: In many cases, Neutron beginners do not know where to start to understand the solution. This article examines a standard setup with Open vSwitch. For completeness, I should mention that OpenStack developers do not unconditionally recommend the Open vSwitch version for production use.

SDN in OpenStack the API

To understand the principle of SDN in OpenStack, you need to understand OpenStack Neutron. The Neutron server is a RESTful-based API in typical OpenStack style.

The Neutron API is the point of contact for any request relating to the SDN configuration in an OpenStack cloud: If a customer wants to create a virtual network via a web interface or Neutron command, the command ends up with the Neutron server. Nova, the OpenStack component that is responsible for managing VMs, talks to Neutron when a virtual port is needed for a new VM. Neutron also plays the role of assigning public IP addresses to VMs.

The Neutron server actually does very little work by itself. Although the specification defines the API commands that clients need for certain tasks, the server does not even implement the commands in a specific configuration for specific servers. Instead, Neutron has a plugin interface (Figures 1 and 2), which you can use to retroactively load external functions.

Figure 1: Neutron itself only provides the API interface and retrofits the actual SDN functionality via a plugin (shown here: MidoNet).
Figure 2: An SDN plugin usually needs its own configuration to access the API for the SDN solution.

Neutron itself has a number of plugins. For the standard scenario, you'll find a plugin that expands Neutron to include Open vSwitch features. Other plugins support communication between Neutron and components such as the MidoNet API or OpenContrail by Juniper. The current Neutron plugin interface, Modular Layer 2 (ML2), theoretically even allows several neutron plugins to operate at the same time. In practice, such setups are never implemented.

The Neutron Server, now extended to include an SDN plugin, acts as a central source of knowledge for all SDN-related information in OpenStack. But this is only half the job: On the hosts that ultimately run VMs, you somehow need to transfer the configuration stored in the Neutron database to the system configuration. To do this, the Neutron developers devised a solution where agents are available for the Neutron server on the hypervisor hosts: These agents receive their instructions from the Neutron server and then configure the target system as defined by the Neutron server.

The default setup with Open vSwitch supports a large number of agents in Neutron: The L2 agent converts the Open vSwitch configuration on the hypervisor hosts and ensures that VMs on the same customer networks can communicate across the nodes. The DHCP agent supplies local dynamic IP addresses to VMs. The L3 agent acts as an interface to the Internet gateway node.

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