Intel researchers are open to talks with ISPs to test network architecture based on clusters of commodity servers.
The chip giant demonstrated a prototype of the RouterBricks concept at Research@Intel last week.
The 10 Gbps-a-port, IPv4 router prototype is a cluster of four, off-the-shelf servers running two-socket Nehalem chips and the Click, modular router software conceived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.
Researcher Sylvia Ratnasamy, based at Intel Research's Berkeley labs in California, told iTnews that Intel's IT department had asked for a prototype.
The cyber-DEfense Technology Experimental Research laboratory (DETERlab) test bed at the universities of California and Southern California, is also understood to be negotiating access to it.
"We'd [also] like to put a router into an ISP network at some point," Ratnasamy said.
"It's too early to talk about a lot of potential commercial uses for RouterBricks. We're only just sticking our heads up now from the research."
It was born out of concerns over the stiffness of the internet's foundations. The researchers said it's a victim of success, that the networking equipment that runs it can't keep pace with growing user and application demands.
RouterBricks hoped to solve this by enabling processing of network packets in software running on clusters of general-purpose server or PC hardware, rather than via traditional hardware routers and switches.
Intel hoped the familiarity of programming for and working with commodity products will reshape network equipment.
But Ratnasamy said the commoditisation of network hardware won't put the project at odds with vendors.
"I don't necessarily view the research as antagonising network equipment vendors," she said.
"There's a lot that goes into equipment today including very high quality software, support and maintenance. Specialised hardware development is an expensive undertaking, so reducing the need for it and giving the products a greater degree of flexibility is something we see would helping the vendors [do business]."
Ratnasamy also rejected suggestions that RouterBricks, through its reliance on commodity hardware and software, could be more easily exploited than standard routers and switches.
"You don't need the full generality of the [server] operating system stack for RouterBricks. You only need a very limited installation," she said.
Researchers hoped the RouterBricks architecture differentiated ISPs and data centres by enabling them to quickly reprogram routers to deploy services and security responses.
A commercial question that the researchers hoped to answer is if a data centre could be built in which compute servers "do double duty as switches, with a fluid boundary between application and network processing", Ratnasamy said.
"The distinction between something at the core - the router - and the edge - the server - is blurring," she said.
"You can imagine having servers in the data centre capable of both functions and scaling one or the other up or down dynamically as workload utilisation fluctuates. But I don't think we have the answers on what the implications of this model might be yet."
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