INTERNET-DRAFT                                            Tom Talpey
Expires: April 2006                                    Chet Juszczak

                                                       October, 2005

                       NFS RDMA Problem Statement

Status of this Memo

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Copyright Notice

     Copyright (C) The Internet Society (2005).  All Rights Reserved.


     This draft addresses applying Remote Direct Memory Access to the
     NFS protocols.  NFS implementations historically incur significant
     overhead due to data copies on end-host systems, as well as other
     sources.  The potential benefits of RDMA to these implementations
     are explored, and the reasons why RDMA is especially well-suited to
     NFS and network file protocols in general are evaluated.

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Table Of Contents

     1.   Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   2
     2.   Problem Statement  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   4
     3.   File Protocol Architecture . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   5
     4.   Sources of Overhead  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   7
     4.1.   Savings from TOE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   8
     4.2.   Savings from RDMA  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   9
     5.   Application of RDMA to NFS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10
     6.   Improved Semantics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10
     7.   Conclusions  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  11
          Acknowledgements . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  11
          Normative References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  12
          Informative References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  12
          Authors' Addresses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  14
          Full Copyright Statement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  14

1.  Introduction

     The Network File System (NFS) protocol (as described in [RFC1094],
     [RFC1813], and [RFC3530]) is one of several remote file access
     protocols used in the class of processing architecture sometimes
     called Network Attached Storage (NAS).

     Historically, remote file access has proved to be a convenient,
     cost-effective way to share information over a network, a concept
     proven over time by the popularity of the NFS protocol.  However,
     there are issues in such a deployment.

     As compared to a local (direct-attached) file access architecture,
     NFS removes the overhead of managing the local on-disk filesystem
     state and its metadata, but interposes at least a transport network
     and two network endpoints between an application process and the
     files it is accessing.  This tradeoff has to date usually resulted
     in a net performance loss as a result of reduced bandwidth,
     increased application server CPU utilization, and other overheads.

     Several classes of applications, including those directly
     supporting enterprise activities in high performance domains such
     as database applications and shared clusters, have therefore
     encountered issues with moving to NFS architectures.  While this
     has been due principally to the performance costs of NFS versus
     direct attached files, other reasons are relevant, such as the lack
     of strong consistency guarantees being provided by NFS

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     Replication of local file access performance on NAS using
     traditional network protocol stacks has proven difficult, not
     because of protocol processing overheads, but because of data copy
     costs in the network endpoints.  This is especially true since host
     buses are now often the main bottleneck in NAS architectures
     [MOG03] [CHA+01].

     The External Data Representation [RFC1832] employed beneath NFS and
     RPC [RPC1831] can add more data copies, exacerbating the problem.

     Data copy-avoidance designs have not been widely adopted for a
     variety of reasons.  [BRU99] points out that "many copy avoidance
     techniques for network I/O are not applicable or may even backfire
     if applied to file I/O."  Other designs that eliminate unnecessary
     copies, such as [PAI+00], are incompatible with existing APIs and
     therefore force application changes.

     Over the past year, an effort to standardize a set of protocols for
     Remote Direct Memory Access, RDMA, over the standard Internet
     Protocol Suite has been chartered [RDDP].  Several drafts have been
     proposed and are under discussion.

     RDMA is a general solution to the problem of CPU overhead incurred
     due to data copies, primarily at the receiver.  Substantial
     research has addressed this and has borne out the efficacy of the
     approach.  An overview of this is the RDDP Problem Statement
     document, [RDDPPS].

     In addition to the per-byte savings of off-loading data copies,
     RDMA-enabled NICs (RNICS) offload the underlying protocol layers as
     well, e.g. TCP, further reducing CPU overhead due to NAS

1.1.  Background

     The RDDP Problem Statement [RDDPPS] asserts:

          "High costs associated with copying are an issue primarily for
          large scale systems ... with high bandwidth feeds, usually
          multiprocessors and clusters, that are adversely affected by
          copying overhead.  Examples of such machines include all
          varieties of servers: database servers, storage servers,
          application servers for transaction processing, for e-
          commerce, and web serving, content distribution, video
          distribution, backups, data mining and decision support, and
          scientific computing.  Note that such servers almost
          exclusively service many concurrent sessions (transport
          connections), which, in aggregate, are responsible for > 1

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          Gbits/s of communication.  Nonetheless, the cost of copying
          overhead for a particular load is the same whether from few or
          many sessions."

     Note that each of the servers listed above could be accessing their
     file data as an NFS client, or NFS serving the data to such
     clients, or acting as both.

     The CPU overhead of the NFS and TCP/IP protocol stacks (including
     data copies or reduced copy workarounds) becomes a significant
     matter in these clients and servers.  File access using locally
     attached disks imposes relatively low overhead due to the highly
     optimized I/O path and direct memory access afforded to the storage
     controller.  This is not the case with NFS, which must pass data
     to, and especially from, the network and network processing stack
     to the NFS stack.  Frequently, data copies are imposed on this
     transfer, in some cases several such copies in each direction.

     Copies are potentially encountered in an NFS implementation
     exchanging data to and from user address spaces, within kernel
     buffer caches, in XDR marshalling and unmarshalling, and within
     network stacks and network drivers.  Other overheads such as
     serialization among multiple threads of execution sharing a single
     NFS mount point and transport connection are additionally

     Numerous upper layer protocols achieve extremely high bandwidth and
     low overhead through the use of RDMA.  [MAF+02] show that the RDMA-
     based Direct Access File System (with a user-level implementation
     of the file system client) can outperform even a zero-copy
     implementation of NFS [CHA+01] [CHA+99] [GAL+99].  Also, file data
     access implies the use of large ULP messages.  These large messages
     tend to amortize any increase in per-message costs due to the
     offload of protocol processing incurred when using RNICs while
     gaining the benefits of reduced per-byte costs.  Finally, the
     direct memory addressing afforded by RDMA avoids many sources of
     contention on network resources.

2.  Problem Statement

     The principal performance problem encountered by NFS
     implementations is the CPU overhead required to implement the
     protocol.  Primary among the sources of this overhead is the
     movement of data from NFS protocol messages to its eventual
     destination in user buffers or aligned kernel buffers.  Due to the
     nature of the RPC and XDR protocols, the NFS data payload arrives
     at arbitrary alignment and the NFS requests are completed in an
     arbitrary sequence.

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     The data copies consume system bus bandwidth and CPU time, reducing
     the available system capacity for applications [RDDPPS].  Achieving
     zero-copy with NFS has, to date, required sophisticated, version-
     specific "header cracking" hardware and/or extensive platform-
     specific virtual memory mapping tricks.  Such approaches become
     even more difficult for NFS version 4 due to the existence of the
     COMPOUND operation, which further reduces alignment and greatly
     complicates ULP offload.

     Furthermore, NFS will soon be challenged by emerging high-speed
     network fabrics such as 10 Gbits/s Ethernet.  Performing even raw
     network I/O such as TCP is an issue at such speeds with today's
     hardware.  The problem is fundamental in nature and has led the
     IETF to explore RDMA [RDDPPS].

     Zero-copy techniques benefit file protocols extensively, as they
     enable direct user I/O, reduce the overhead of protocol stacks,
     provide perfect alignment into caches, etc.  Many studies have
     already shown the performance benefits of such techniques [SKE+01,
     DCK+03, FJNFS, FJDAFS, MAF+02].

     RDMA implementations generally have other interesting properties,
     such as hardware assisted protocol access, and support for user
     space access to I/O.  RDMA is compelling here for another reason;
     hardware offloaded networking support in itself does not avoid data
     copies, without resorting to implementing part of the NFS protocol
     in the NIC.  Support of RDMA by NFS enables the highest performance
     at the architecture level rather than by implementation; this
     enables ubiquitous and interoperable solutions.

     By providing file access performance equivalent to that of local
     file systems, NFS over RDMA will enable applications running on a
     set of client machines to interact through an NFS file system, just
     as applications running on a single machine might interact through
     a local file system.

3.  File Protocol Architecture

     NFS runs as an ONC RPC [RFC1831] application.  Being a file access
     protocol, NFS is very "rich" in data content (versus control

     NFS messages can range from very small (under 100 bytes) to very
     large (from many kilobytes to a megabyte or more).  They are all
     contained within an RPC message and follow a variable length RPC
     header.  This layout provides an alignment challenge for the data
     items contained in an NFS call (request) or reply (response)

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     In addition to the control information in each NFS call or reply
     message, sometimes there are large "chunks" of application file
     data, for example read and write requests.  With NFS version 4 (due
     to the existence of the COMPOUND operation) there can be several of
     these data chunks interspersed with control information.

     ONC RPC is a remote procedure call protocol that has been run over
     a variety of transports.  Most implementations today use UDP or
     TCP.  RPC messages are defined in terms of an eXternal Data
     Representation (XDR) [RFC1832] which provides a canonical data
     representation across a variety of host architectures.  An XDR data
     stream is conveyed differently on each type of transport.  On UDP,
     RPC messages are encapsulated inside datagrams, while on a TCP byte
     stream, RPC messages are delineated by a record marking protocol.
     An RDMA transport also conveys RPC messages in a unique fashion
     that must be fully described if client and server implementations
     are to interoperate.

     The RPC transport is responsible for conveying an RPC message from
     a sender to a receiver.  An RPC message is either an RPC call from
     a client to a server, or an RPC reply from the server back to the
     client.  An RPC message contains an RPC call header followed by
     arguments if the message is an RPC call, or an RPC reply header
     followed by results if the message is an RPC reply.  The call
     header contains a transaction ID (XID) followed by the program and
     procedure number as well as a security credential.  An RPC reply
     header begins with an XID that matches that of the RPC call
     message, followed by a security verifier and results.  All data in
     an RPC message is XDR encoded.

     The encoding of XDR data into transport buffers is referred to as
     "marshalling", and the decoding of XDR data contained within
     transport buffers and into destination RPC procedure result
     buffers, is referred to as "unmarshalling".  The process of
     marshalling takes place therefore at the sender of any particular
     message, be it an RPC request or an RPC response.  Unmarshalling,
     of course, takes place at the receiver.

     Normally, any bulk data is moved (copied) as a result of the
     unmarshalling process, because the destination adddress is not
     known until the RPC code receives control and subsequently invokes
     the XDR unmarshalling routine.  In other words, XDR-encoded data is
     not self-describing, and it carries no placement information.  This
     results in a data copy in most NFS implementations.

     One mechanism by which the RPC layer may overcome this is for each
     request to include placement information, to be used for direct
     placement during XDR encode.  This "write chunk" can avoid sending

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     bulk data inline in an RPC message and generally results in one or
     more RDMA Write operations.

     Similarly, a "read chunk", where placement information referring to
     bulk data which may be directly fetched via one or more RDMA Read
     operations during XDR decode, may be conveyed.  The "read chunk"
     will therefore be useful in both RPC calls and replies, while the
     "write chunk" is used solely in replies.

     These "chunks" are the key concept in an existing proposal
     [RPCRDMA].  They convey what are effectively pointers to remote
     memory across the network.  They allow cooperating peers to
     exchange data outside of XDR encodings but still use XDR for
     describing the data to be transferred.  And, finally, through use
     of XDR they maintain a large degree of on-the-wire compatibility.

     The central concept of the RDMA transport is to provide the
     additional encoding conventions to convey this placement
     information in transport-specific encoding, and to modify the XDR
     handling of bulk data.

                             Block Diagram

     |         NFS            |            NFS + RDMA             |
     |           Operations / Procedures             |            |
     +-----------------------------------------------+            |
     |                   RPC/XDR                     |            |
     +--------------------------------+--------------+            |
     |       Stream Transport         |      RDMA Transport       |

4.  Sources of Overhead

     Network and file protocol costs can be categorized as follows:

     o    per-byte costs - data touching costs such as checksum or data
          copy.  Today's network interface hardware commonly offloads
          the checksum, which leaves the other major source of per-byte
          overhead, data copy.

     o    per-packet costs - interrupts and lower-layer processing.
          Today's network interface hardware also commonly coalesce
          interrupts to reduce per-packet costs.

     o    per-message (request or response) costs - LLP and ULP

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     Improvement from optimization becomes more important if the
     overhead it targets is a larger share of the total cost.  As other
     sources of overhead, such as the checksumming and interrupt
     handling above are eliminated, the remaining overheads (primarily
     data copy) loom larger.

     With copies crossing the bus twice per copy, network processing
     overhead is high whenever network bandwidth is large in comparison
     to CPU and memory bandwidths.  Generally with today's end-systems,
     the effects are observable at network speeds at or above 1 Gbits/s.

     A common question is whether increase in CPU processing power
     alleviates the problem of high processing costs of network I/O.
     The answer is no, it is the memory bandwidth that is the issue.
     Faster CPUs do not help if the CPU spends most of its time waiting
     for memory [RDDPPS].

     TCP offload engine (TOE) technology aims to offload the CPU by
     moving TCP/IP protocol processing to the NIC.  However, TOE
     technology by itself does nothing to avoid necessary data copies
     within upper layer protocols.  [MOG03] provides a description of
     the role TOE can play in reducing per-packet and per-message costs.
     Beyond the offloads commonly provided by today's network interface
     hardware, TOE alone (w/o RDMA) helps in protocol header processing,
     but this has been shown to be a minority component of the total
     protocol processing overhead. [CHA+01]

     Numerous software approaches to the optimization of network
     throughput have been made.  Experience has shown that network I/O
     interacts with other aspects of system processing such as file I/O
     and disk I/O.  [BRU99] [CHU96] Zero-copy optimizations based on
     page remapping [CHU96] can be dependent upon machine architecture,
     and are not scaleable to multi-processor architectures.  Correct
     buffer alignment and sizing together are needed to optimize the
     performance of zero-copy movement mechanisms [SKE+01].  The NFS
     message layout described above does not facilitate the splitting of
     headers from data nor does it facilitate providing correct data
     buffer alignment.

4.1.  Savings from TOE

     The expected improvement of TOE specifically for NFS protocol
     processing can be quantified and shown to be fundamentally limited.
     [SHI+03] presents a set of "LAWS" parameters which serve to
     illustrate the issues.  In the TOE case, the copy cost can be
     viewed as part of the application processing "a".  Application
     processing increases the LAWS "gamma", which is shown by the paper
     to result in a diminished benefit for TOE.

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     For example, if the overhead is 20% TCP/IP, 30% copy and 50% real
     application work, then gamma is 80/20 or 4, which means the maximum
     benefit of TOE is 1/gamma, or only 25%.

     For RDMA (with embedded TOE) and the same example, the "overhead"
     (o) offloaded or eliminated is 50% (20%+30%).  Therefore in the
     RDMA case, gamma is 50/50 or 1, and the inverse gives the potential
     benefit of 1 (100%), a factor of two.

                        CPU overhead reduction factor

                   No Offload   TCP Offload   RDMA Offload
                      1.00x        1.25x         2.00x

     The analysis in the paper shows that RDMA could improve throughput
     by the same factor of two, even when the host is (just) powerful
     enough to drive the full network bandwidth without RDMA.  It can
     also be shown that the speedup may be higher if network bandwidth
     grows faster than Moore's Law, although the higher benefits will
     apply to a narrow range of applications.

4.2.  Savings from RDMA

     Performance measurements directly comparing an NFS over RDMA
     prototype with conventional network-based NFS processing are
     described in [CAL+03].  Comparisons of Read throughput and CPU
     overhead were performed on two Gigabit Ethernet adapters, one
     conventional and one with RDMA capability.  The prototype RDMA
     protocol performed all transfers via RDMA Read.

     In these results, conventional network-based throughput was
     severely limited by the client's CPU being saturated at 100% for
     all transfers.  Read throughput reached no more than 60MBytes/s.

            I/O Type      Size    Read Throughput     CPU Utilization
            Conventional    2KB          20MB/s              100%
            Conventional   16KB          40MB/s              100%
            Conventional  256KB          60MB/s              100%

     However, over RDMA, throughput rose to the theoretical maximum
     throughput of the platform, while saturating the single-CPU system
     only at maximum throughput.

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            I/O Type      Size    Read Throughput     CPU Utilization
            RDMA            2KB          10MB/s               45%
            RDMA           16KB          40MB/s               70%
            RDMA          256KB         100MB/s              100%

     The lower relative throughput of the RDMA prototype at the small
     blocksize may be attributable to the RDMA Read imposed by the
     prototype protocol, which reduced the operation rate since it
     introduces additional latency.  As well, it may reflect the
     relative increase of per-packet setup costs within the DMA portion
     of the transfer.

5.  Application of RDMA to NFS

     Efficient file protocols require efficient data positioning and
     movement.  The client system knows the client memory address where
     the application has data to be written or wants read data
     deposited.  The server system knows the server memory address where
     the local filesystem will accept write data or has data to be read.
     Neither peer however is aware of the others' data destination in
     the current NFS, RPC or XDR protocols.  Existing NFS
     implementations have struggled with the performance costs of data
     copies when using traditional Ethernet transports.

     With the onset of faster networks, the network I/O bottleneck will
     worsen.  Fortunately, new transports that support RDMA have
     emerged.  RDMA excels at bulk transfer efficiency; it is an
     efficient way to deliver direct data placement and remove a major
     part of the problem: data copies.  RDMA also addresses other
     overheads, e.g. underlying protocol offload, and offers separation
     of control information from data.

     The current NFS message layout provides the performance enhancing
     opportunity for an NFS over RDMA protocol that separates the
     control information from data chunks while meeting the alignment
     needs of both.  The data chunks can be copied "directly" between
     the client and server memory addresses above (with a single
     occurrence on each memory bus) while the control information can be
     passed "inline".  [ONCRDMA] describes such a protocol.

6.  Improved Semantics

     Network file protocols need to export the application programming
     interfaces and semantics that applications, especially mission
     critical ones like database and clusters, have been developed to
     expect.  These APIs and semantics are historical in nature and
     successful deprecation is doubtful.  NFS has not delivered all of
     the semantics (for example, reliable filesystem transactions) for

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     the sake of acceptable performance.

     The advanced properties of RDMA-capable transports allow improved
     semantics.  [DAFS] is an example of a protocol which exports
     semantics which are similar to those of NFSv4, but improved in
     specific areas.  Improved NFS semantics can also be delivered.  As
     an example, [RPCRDMA] describes an implementation of RPC for RDMA
     transport that is evolutionary in nature yet enables the provision
     of reliable and idempotent filesystem operation.  This proposal
     shows that it is possible to deliver extended semantics with an
     RPC/XDR layer implementation with no changes required above the NFS
     layer, and few within.

7.  Conclusions

     NFS version 4 [RFC3530] has recently been granted "Proposed
     Standard" status.  The NFSv4 protocol was developed along several
     design points, important among them: effective operation over wide-
     area networks, including the Internet itself;  strong security
     integrated into the protocol;  extensive cross-platform
     interoperability including integrated locking semantics compatible
     with multiple operating systems; and (this is key), protocol

     NFS version 4 is an excellent base on which to add the needed
     performance enhancements and improved semantics described above.
     The minor versioning support defined in NFS version 4 was designed
     to support protocol improvements without disruption to the
     installed base.  Evolutionary improvement of the protocol via minor
     versioning is a conservative and cautious approach to current and
     future problems and shortcomings.

     Many arguments can be made as to the efficacy of the file
     abstraction in meeting the future needs of enterprise data service
     and the Internet.  Fine grained Quality of Service (QoS) policies
     (e.g. data delivery, retention, availability, security, ...) are
     high among them.

     It is vital that the NFS protocol continue to provide these
     benefits to a wide range of applications, without its usefulness
     being compromised by concerns about performance and semantic
     inadequacies.  This can reasonably be addressed in the existing NFS
     protocol framework.  A cautious evolutionary improvement of
     performance and semantics allows building on the value already
     present in the NFS protocol, while addressing new requirements that
     have arisen from the application of networking technology.

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8.  Acknowledgements

     The authors wish to thank Jeff Chase who provided many useful

9.  Normative References

          S. Shepler, et. al., "NFS Version 4 Protocol", Standards Track

          R. Srinivasan, "RPC: Remote Procedure Call Protocol
          Specification Version 2", Standards Track RFC

          R. Srinivasan, "XDR: External Data Representation Standard",
          Standards Track RFC

          B. Callaghan, B. Pawlowski, P. Staubach, "NFS Version 3
          Protocol Specification", Informational RFC

10.  Informative References

          J. Brustoloni, "Interoperation of copy avoidance in network
          and file I/O", in Proc. INFOCOM '99, pages 534-542, New York,
          NY, Mar. 1999., IEEE.  Also available from

          B. Callaghan, T. Lingutla-Raj, A.  Chiu, P. Staubach, O. Asad,
          "NFS over RDMA", in Proceedings of ACM SIGCOMM Summer 2003
          NICELI Workshop.

          J. S. Chase, A. J. Gallatin, K. G. Yocum, "Endsystem
          optimizations for high-speed TCP", IEEE Communications,
          39(4):68-74, April 2001.

          J. S. Chase, D. C. Anderson, A. J. Gallatin, A. R. Lebeck, K.
          G. Yocum, "Network I/O with Trapeze", in 1999 Hot
          Interconnects Symposium, August 1999.

          H.K. Chu, "Zero-copy TCP in Solaris", Proc. of the USENIX 1996

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          Annual Technical Conference, San Diego, CA, January 1996

          Direct Access File System Specification version 1.0, available
          from, September 2001

          M. DeBergalis, P. Corbett, S. Kleiman, A. Lent, D. Noveck, T.
          Talpey, M. Wittle, "The Direct Access File System", in
          Proceedings of 2nd USENIX Conference on File and Storage
          Technologies (FAST '03), San Francisco, CA, March 31 - April
          2, 2003

          Fujitsu Prime Software Technologies, "Meet the DAFS
          Performance with DAFS/VI Kernel Implementation using cLAN",
          available from
, 2001.

          Fujitsu Prime Software Technologies, "An Adaptation of VIA to
          NFS on Linux", available from
, 2000.

          A. Gallatin, J. Chase, K. Yocum, "Trapeze/IP: TCP/IP at Near-
          Gigabit Speeds", 1999 USENIX Technical Conference (Freenix
          Track), June 1999.

          K. Magoutis, "Design and Implementation of a Direct Access
          File System (DAFS) Kernel Server for FreeBSD", in Proceedings
          of USENIX BSDCon 2002 Conference, San Francisco, CA, February
          11-14, 2002.

          K. Magoutis, S. Addetia, A. Fedorova, M. Seltzer, J. Chase, D.
          Gallatin, R. Kisley, R. Wickremesinghe, E. Gabber, "Structure
          and Performance of the Direct Access File System (DAFS)", in
          Proceedings of 2002 USENIX Annual Technical Conference,
          Monterey, CA, June 9-14, 2002.

          J. Mogul, "TCP offload is a dumb idea whose time has come",
          9th Workshop on Hot Topics in Operating Systems (HotOS IX),
          Lihue, HI, May 2003. USENIX.

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          V. S. Pai, P. Druschel, W. Zwaenepoel, "IO-Lite: a unified I/O
          buffering and caching system", ACM Trans. Computer Systems,
          18(1):37-66, Feb. 2000.

          Remote Direct Data Placement Working Group Problem Statement,
          A. Romanow, J. Mogul, T. Talpey, S. Bailey, Internet Draft
          Work in Progress, draft-ietf-rddp-problem-statement

          B. Callaghan, T. Talpey, "RDMA Transport for ONC RPC",
          Internet Draft Work in Progress, draft-ietf-nfsv4-rpcrdma

          P. Shivam, J. Chase, "On the Elusive Benefits of Protocol
          Offload", to be published in Proceedings of ACM SIGCOMM Summer
          2003 NICELI Workshop, also available from

          K.-A. Skevik, T. Plagemann, V. Goebel, P. Halvorsen,
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Authors' Addresses

     Tom Talpey
     Network Appliance, Inc.
     375 Totten Pond Road
     Waltham, MA 02451 USA

     Phone: +1 781 768 5329

     Chet Juszczak
     Chet's Boathouse Co.
     P.O. Box 1467
     Merrimack, NH 03054


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Internet-Draft         NFS RDMA Problem Statement           October 2005

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