Nick McKeown: 2016 Plenary Session


Tuesday April 12, 2016
Location: McCaw Hall, Arrillaga Alumni Center

"Programming the network (or, why is there a blackbox in my whitebox switch?)"



Software-Defined Networking (SDN) has been successful because it lets network owners and operators "program" network behavior. Today, owners and operators of large networks take it for granted that they can commission, write or buy software to manage their network. But SDN's programmability is confined to the network control plane. Conventional wisdom says that if we want the forwarding plane to be programmable, we must pay a large penalty in terms of performance and power.

In about 2010, we started to challenge the conventional wisdom and I am now convinced it is no longer true. I will explain why in the talk; and will describe a new breed of programmable high-performance forwarding chips following the PISA architecture (Protocol Independent Switch Architecture). To program PISA devices we will need a domain specific language, in which programmers declare the forwarding behavior they want. P4 is such a language ( and is gaining wide traction as a way to write portable, target-independent programs to run on PISA devices.In P4, the programmer declares how packets are to be processed, and a compiler generates a configuration for a protocol-independent switch chip or NIC. For example, the programmer might program the switch to be a top-of-rack switch, a firewall, or a load-balancer; and might add features to run automatic diagnostics and novel congestion control algorithms. In this talk, I will explain why high performance programmable switches are inevitable, give a brief primer on P4, and explain how this will transform how we program and use the network.


Nick McKeown (PhD/MS UC Berkeley '95/'92; B.E Univ. of Leeds, '86) is the Kleiner Perkins, Mayfield and Sequoia Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Stanford University, and Faculty Director of the Open Networking Research Center. From 1986-1989 he worked for Hewlett-Packard Labs in Bristol, England. In 1995, he helped architect Cisco's GSR 12000 router. Nick was co-founder and CTO at Abrizio (acquired by PMC-Sierra, 1998), co-founder and CEO of Nemo ("Network Memory" ),acquired by Cisco, 2005. In 2007 he co-founded Nicira (acquired by VMware) with Martin Casado and Scott Shenker. Nick is chairman of Barefoot Networks which he co-founded with Pat Bosshart and Martin Izzard in 2013. In 2011, he co-founded the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) with Scott Shenker; and the Open Networking Lab (ON.Lab) with Guru Parulkar and Scott Shenker.

Nick is a member of the US National Academy of Engineering (NAE), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (UK), the IEEE and the ACM. He received the British Computer Society Lovelace Medal (2005), the IEEE Kobayashi Computer and Communications Award (2009), the ACM Sigcomm Lifetime Achievement Award (2012), the IEEE Rice communications theory award (1999). Nick has an Honorary Doctorate from ETH (Zurich, 2014). Nick's current research interests include software defined networks (SDN), network verification, video streaming, how to enable more rapid improvements to the Internet infrastructure, and tools and platforms for networking research and teaching.