Interfacing external resources with routing and switching network elements

Data communication networks may include routing and switching elements, and other network devices, interconnected and configured to handle data as it passes through the network. These devices will be referred to herein as “network elements.” Data is communicated through the data communication network by passing data packets (or cells, frames, or segments) between the network elements by utilizing one or more communication links. A particular packet may be handled by multiple network elements and cross multiple communication links as it travels between its source and its destination over the network.

As communications networks evolve, network elements have been expected to perform increasingly sophisticated functions on and in connection with the data packets they are handling. For example, added intelligence may enable the network element to participate in advanced switching, routing, and filtering operations. Unfortunately, the ability to implement new features, such as security required to govern access to the network element and storage required by the network device to implement these new functions, may be limited due to limitations on processing capability, available memory and storage resources, physical size restrictions, or other design constraints. Additionally, the functionality expected of a network element may change as the network on which the network element changes and as new capabilities are developed.

SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

The present invention overcomes these and other drawbacks by providing a method and apparatus for interfacing external resources with a network element. According to one embodiment of the invention, an intelligent interface on a network element includes an independent processing environment that is capable of being utilized to enhance the overall capabilities of the network element. For example, the intelligent interface may serve as an interface to an external storage resource, a logging facility, a security service, or other external resources. By providing an intelligent interface, it is possible to interface these resources and network services to the network element while allowing processing requirements to be offloaded from the network element to the intelligent interface itself or to the external device via the intelligent interface when necessary. As a result, existing resources of the network element may be more fully utilized to perform network operations such as forwarding, switching and routing. The intelligent interface also enables new resources to be available to the network element as they are developed or as a need becomes apparent. The intelligent interface, according to one embodiment of the invention, includes an external communication port that is configured to operate using one of the USB standards.

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