Sunday, January 17, 2010

Developer resources

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The challenge of providing data center visibility and control requires that all network devices integrate the instrumentation needed for visibility and that software developers deliver solutions that convert the measurements into actionable intelligence.

Meeting this challenge involves a broad community of individuals and companies participating in the sFlow consortium and developing products based on the sFlow standard. The rapid changes taking place in data center networking are accelerating the adoption of sFlow and introducing large numbers of developers to sFlow technology. This article provides links to resources intended to help new developers get started with sFlow.

The web site is the first place developers should look for information, whether adding sFlow support to a network device, or developing an application to analyze sFlow. Join the sFlow mailing list to ask questions and connect with the sFlow community.

Familiarity with the sFlow version 5 standard is essential, even if you are using one of the following software libraries. A detailed understanding of the standard is critical when integrating the agent software with switch hardware to ensure that data is correctly collected and exported. When developing an sFlow analyzer, an understanding of the measurements ensures that the data is correctly interpreted.

Agent developers should not base their agent implementations on RFC 3176. The RFC describes sFlow version 4 and has been superseded by version 5. However, when developing an sFlow analyzer, both versions of sFlow should be supported since customers may have equipment exporting sFlow version 4.

In addition to the standard, the paper Packet Sampling Basics, is worth reading in order to understand the theory behind sFlow's sampling mechanism.

The following resources are available for agent developers:
  1. Developer Tools, contains a free, open-source implementation of an sFlow agent that is the basis for a number of open source and commercial sFlow agent implementations. Building an agent using the sFlow Agent library saves time and ensures that the sFlow information is correctly and efficiently encoded. In addition to the agent source code, tools for testing and validating the correct function of the agent are included.
  2. Virtual Probe, a free, open-source, software probe for monitoring virtual switch traffic based on the sFlow Agent library.
  3. sFlow Toolkit, contains the sflowtool command line utility that decodes and prints sFlow records.
  4. sFlowTrend, a free, graphical sFlow analyzer. Testing the agent with sFlowTrend makes it easy to visually check the accuracy of the sFlow agent and ensure that it is correctly reporting traffic flows and interface counters.
The first challenge facing anyone interested in writing an sFlow analyzer is to get access to a source of sFlow data. In order to obtain realistic sFlow data, it is best if the sFlow is generated by devices installed in a production network. The sFlow standard is widely supported by switch vendors, so check to see if you have access to an sFlow capable device. If an sFlow capable switch is not available, the software agents listed above provide another alternative. Installing the agent software on a server will monitor traffic on the server, generating realistic sFlow data.

The following software tools are helpful for sFlow analyzer developers:
  1. sFlow Toolkit, contains a command line tool, sflowtool, that decodes sFlow and can be used with scripting languages to perform sFlow analysis. The source code for sflowtool is a useful starting point for developing a C language sFlow analyzer.
  2. Net::sFlow, open-source Perl library for decoding sFlow version 4 and 5 datagrams.
  3. jsFlow, open-source Java library for decoding sFlow version 5 datagrams.
  4. Wireshark, open-source protocol analyzer. Familiarity with protocol analysis is an important skill for an sFlow developer since sFlow exports packet headers and decoding the packet headers is the responsibility of the sFlow analyzer. Examining traffic in Wireshark is a great way to develop a better understanding of protocol analysis and the information that can be extracted from the packet header.
Finally, please share links to additional resources by posting comments to this article.

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