Software-defined networking is often discussed in general terms about the benefits of agility and flexibility it can bring, but actual SDN use cases can be harder to come by. On Thursday at Interop Las Vegas, a networking expert shed light on some practical ways SDN can be used by both primary and secondary educational organizations.
Tom Hollingsworth, a network engineer, well-known blogger and Network Computing Contributor, spent 10 years working for a value-added reseller that worked extensively with primary education organizations, so he's well-versed in the challenges schools face.
One of their top challenges, of course, is a lack of funding. If it comes down to buying new switches, a school bus, or retaining teachers, switches clearly won't be the priority. Software can help education by reducing IT acquisition costs over time. New features get rolled out with every new software version, which increases hardware longevity, he said.
SDN offers programmability, which provides extensibility, and orchestration, which helps avoid human error, Hollingsworth said.
"At the end of the day, I'm tired of thinking about my network," he said. "It should run like the electrical system or plumbing system in my house. I shouldn't have to worry about whether there's a flaw. SDN is keeping me from being a firefighter and allowing me to be more proactive."
While current networks barely use Quality of Service (QoS), schools can use SDN to apply QoS policies automatically and ensure bandwidth requirements are met, he said. That way, schools can avoid a situation in which administrators can't get their work done because all bandwidth is reserved for student testing.
Meanwhile, universities can apply QoS protection mechanisms to the edge to control and secure bandwidth usage in dorms, where it's a Wild West of devices and applications. "It gives you the ability to triage the problem," he said.
Another SDN use case for education is service chaining or traffic steering, Hollingsworth said. Schools must comply with filtering regulations, but current traffic filters require network engineering or sacrifice speed. Service chaining with SDN allows a school to put traffic through a filter, such as an intrusion-detection system without the need for extra hardware, he said. It provides an audit trail and alleviates the problem of students circumventing filters.
"They can't evade you," he added.
The third SDN use case Hollingsworth discussed is widely applicable: software-defined WAN. The SD-WAN trend is relatively new as several companies saw an opportunity in making WANs more efficient and cost effective through SDN, he said. WAN circuits are expensive, even for schools under E-Rate, a program that provides schools with discounts for telecommunications services.
Overall, SDN offers a lot of opportunities in education, Hollingsworth said. Networks need to be optimized for application usage, not users, he said.
"If we can keep applications up and running, we'll keep the rest of the world happy," he said.