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SDN pioneers share their secrets

Training, planning and testing are key to SDN rollouts

By James Careless, Network World
October 07, 2013 06:01 AM ET

Network World - With the ability to create virtual networks quickly and efficiently – rather than programming network-connected hardware on an individual basis – software defined networks (SDN) appear to be the time-and-resource saving solution that overwhelmed IT managers have been looking for.

However, there’s a difference between the theory behind an IT advance and the actual experience of deploying and using it. 

We talked to several SDN pioneers to find out how their early forays into SDN are faring and to share what they’ve learned.

SDN at Marist College: A Thoughtful Deployment

Marist College, located on a picturesque 210-acre campus in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was recently selected by The Princeton Review as being one of the country’s “Most Connected Campuses”.

When it comes to SDN, “We entered this arena through an IBM faculty research grant and immediately began working with the OpenFlow protocol,” says Robert Cannistra, a Marist College professor of computer science and information technology. “Our work led us to test SDN in our faculty-led research laboratory, and to develop a pilot deployment on our own campus network via our IT department."

[ALSO: Planning for SDN]

Over the past two-and-a-half years, Marist College has worked with IBM to test and deploy an OpenFlow-based software defined network to interconnect three college data centers. The goal has been to streamline the implementation of Layer 2 network management provisioning and policies over NEC OpenFlow controllers, NEC OpenFlow switches, IBM OpenFlow switches, IBM servers and storage.

“Our current conventional Layer 2 domains are prone to traffic congestion and high convergence times,” Cannistra says. “With our SDN approach, we can quickly develop policies that address the root causes of these issues, and push those policies through the SDN quickly. The result is reduced latency, because we can now define which traffic takes priority as required.”

As part of its SDN research, Marist College has developed a user-friendly GUI, known as Avior, for the Floodlight OpenFlow Controller, an OpenFlow QoS module, a host-aware networking module and a dynamic optical provisioning application, known as ADVAlanche, using ADVA Optical Networking FSP 3000s to connect the geographically dispersed sites.

To date, the college has deployed basic SDN access for 5,000 of its students, plus advanced SDN access for a number of faculty research groups.

Having initially been “a complete skeptic” with respect to SDN, Cannistra has become a believer – within limits. One reason for his reserve: “When it comes to the technical aspects of SDN, the secret sauce is in each vendor’s implementation, which makes the entire concept of ‘OpenFlow’ not open at all,” he warns. Fortunately, he expects that, “As the OpenFlow specification evolves, you will see more features and functionality built into the open industry standards.”

[RELATED: OpenFlow and SDN: Networking's future?]

Meanwhile, “One of the main pitfalls we realized in our production network early in the deployment was the design and generation of a naming scheme to be used on the ‘virtual’ networks throughout the SDN,” says Cannistra. “This is a crucial point to understand: If you design it correctly the first time, you do not need to redesign it or come up with “workarounds” later on to overcome obstacles in the design.” The way to avoid this problem is to have a good test bed to test and verify these designs, before taking them into production; a tool Marist College happens to have.

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