Nov 07 2013

Software-Defined Networking, Clearly Defined Benefits

In embracing SDN, higher ed is gaining flexibility in hardware selection and simplifying management and administration.

When it comes to software-defined networking, Indiana University and Marist College prefer to grow their own. And both institutions are realizing the promise of SDN in production data center applications by leveraging software developed on their own campuses.

SDN is a means of simplifying configuration and increasing flexibility in hardware deployment by separating the control functions of networking gear from hardware-based processing. At Bloomington-based Indiana University, SDN software known as FlowScale, was charged with the tasks. FlowScale modifies Ethernet switches to perform security tasks while also monitoring and distributing incoming traffic from a variety of paths to intrusion detection system (IDS) servers that inspect data to detect and block malicious code.

“This app divides traffic flows up into groups and tries to balance them, so if we have 10 intrusion detection systems, each system gets one-tenth of the total traffic,” says Steve Wallace, executive director of the Indiana Center for Network Translational Research and Education (InCNTRE), a university hub that supports education, research and development of SDN and other technologies.

FlowScale was developed using OpenFlow, an SDN code standard developed by the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) that supports control functions across the equipment of multiple vendors, provided their products support ONF. InCNTRE is the first ONF-approved testing lab.

Developed in Java, FlowScale is a clear-cut example of the opportunities SDN creates for universities to manage data center gear more flexibly and efficiently. Administrators utilize a web interface to manage switches and view comprehensive statistics or status information on individual devices. Policies can be applied once to all OpenFlow-compatible switches, so admins don’t need to know the specific configuration details of a particular switch. FlowScale also features hot-swap and failover capabilities for traffic management and reliability in the event of a port failure.

‘We have more flexibility.’

Indiana is uniquely positioned to drive SDN activity. The university runs a global network operations center — the Internet2 NOC — that plays a major role in research and education networking and supports roughly 20 other research networks. The center employs more than 80 full-time staff.

Wallace says Indiana’s interest in SDN came about because officials there saw significant potential in the technology and recognized that SDN had as much promise in the commercial sector as in research.

Technical staff there also used OpenFlow to develop a web-based provisioning tool for Internet2 services, enabling users to define paths across the vast Internet2 network for a given type of packet or data. An administrator can choose a path or allow the software to select an optimal path from a performance perspective.


Projected compound annual growth rate of the global SDN market from 2012 to 2018.

SOURCE: “Software Defined Networking Market – Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends, and Forecast, 2012 - 2018” (Transparency Market Research, Sept. 2013)

“We have more flexibility in selecting switches” as a result of using SDN, Wallace says. Prior to OpenFlow and SDN, the flexibility to configure all gear from a single interface wasn’t possible. “To implement that required software to be tailored to each specific network device. How you communicate with that device might vary, including between versions of firmware, let alone between vendors and model numbers.”

As a long-term direction, SDN and OpenFlow will enable Indiana and InCNTRE to find or develop software that best meets the needs of a particular application or organization, while isolating that software from the hardware, Wallace says.

‘We have the intelligence.’

At Marist College in Poughkeepsie N.Y., OpenFlow code was written by computer science and IT students to enable switches in three different data centers to communicate over single-mode fiber, with the OpenFlow app managing DNS and DHCP services, says Robert Cannistra, a senior professional lecturer on computer science and information tech and systems at Marist.

“Before, there might have been little pockets in the network that were performing less than adequate,” Cannistra says. “With OpenFlow, we have the intelligence to redistribute that traffic. Having one central point of management allows us to manipulate that end-to-end.”

The data center connections are still being built out and tested, but Marist’s OpenFlow app now supports some production traffic, Cannistra says.

Like commercial entities that are exploring SDN, higher education enterprises see the benefits of centrally programming switches and other hardware, says Bob Laliberte, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group in Milford, Mass. “Organizations see SDN as an opportunity to help drive greater levels of programmability and automation,” he says. “One of the top challenges they face is around the ability to provision services in a timely manner, because there are too many manual processes involved with doing that.”

Universities generally are farther along with SDN than commercial enterprises because they have the research and experimentation mindset as well as the resources available through students and other team members to write SDN code, LaLiberte says.


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