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Why Campus Networks Need Software Defined Networking

SDN originated from university research, spread through Internet2, and should eventually make life easier for small college network managers.

I wondered how soon this technology will trickle down to the smaller liberal arts colleges, thinking of Union College CIO Ellen Borkowski, who told me in a recent interview that bringing order to her campus network (on a limited budget) was one of her greatest challenges.

"Those places are going to win the biggest from this -- no question in my mind whatsoever," Wallace said. The promise of SDN is to make advanced networking techniques available to smaller institutions, allowing them to get the most value out of whatever network infrastructure they have available.

Indiana University has hundreds of people on its IT staff, many devoted specifically to networking, so it "has the horsepower to do things the hard way," Wallace said. The university used to have to do wireless networking the hard way, with a staff of people who would run around configuring and tuning access points, he noted. That's no longer necessary because wireless access points can now be programmed and reprogrammed over the network. "Now, you can go install an access point -- it doesn't really matter where -- and there's no configuration required" because a centralized controller can enforce policies across thousands of those devices, he said.

With SDN, wired network management will move closer to what's been achieved in wireless networks, Wallace said.

Not all SDN is based on OpenFlow and not all network equipment makers agree OpenFlow will be central to the future of SDN. Juniper Networks promotes an SDN strategy that treats OpenFlow as just a starting point. Other network equipment makers are shipping equipment that supports OpenFlow or can add support for it as a software upgrade. Wallace said one thing many network managers are waiting for is support for OpenFlow 1.3, which includes some significant improvements.

The push to develop SDN coincides with the emergence of white box networking hardware, which runs on Linux and can be programmed however you like. The Open Compute Project's network switch design initiative, part of the larger open source data center software and hardware project initiated by Facebook, aims to accelerate that trend.

"At least initially, if you're planning to deploy OpenFlow on a production network, you need to be a relatively sophisticated consumer," Wallace said. The big research universities that are used to buying technologies like supercomputers are up to the challenge, while a lot of others should probably watch and wait, he said.

"If you're the CIO of a university, you need to ensure your networking folks are being exposed to SDN and OpenFlow and starting to evaluate it as a technology that will find its way into your networks in a not-too-distant time frame," Wallace said.

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User Rank: Apprentice
6/11/2013 | 8:06:27 PM
re: Why Campus Networks Need Software Defined Networking
Though I am a neophyte myself on SDN, I can appreciate the power of Software Defined whatever, having a familiarity with it in other contexts. As a practitioner of reliable, high-performance networking, a definitely feel some inner stress about SDN. Yes, technology needs to evolve, but at the same time the network can be so critical that you also just want it to work, and old-school simple is good for that (until you bump up against limits of old-school simple).

From what I can tell, the notion of SDN means different things to different people as well, so it will be interesting to see if one model/definition absolutely emerges that still allows for all of the wonderful things that an open framework can spawn. I know comparisons get made to server virtualization and even enterprise wireless systems that separate the data and control planes, but these can also have their own issues. I don't think SDN will equal a free lunch from problems, but the innovation it will afford will be amazing- as long as we make sure my innovation stays compatible with yours where they interconnect. This is an area where a lot of us will wait and watch while others triumph and get burned until it feels safer to jump in.

One man's O-pinion, brother. But a good piece on the topic.

-Lee Badman
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