Granite Geek: UNH on the Front Lines of 'Software-Defined' Networking

Aug 3, 2016

As software becomes more sophisticated, it has taken over jobs usually completed by humans or machines. A new kind of software technology called “Software-Defined Networking” is enabling software to take the place of certain kinds of machinery. A lab in Durham has recently begun taking a closer look at Software-Defined Networking, and Granite Geek David Brooks joined NHPR’s Peter Biello to give us the details.

This can get pretty complicated. Could you explain to me, as someone who is not terribly familiar with the way computer networks operate, what software-defined networking is?

No I can’t; you’ll never understand.

Alright, I’ll try.

So we’re talking about computer internet networking here. It is the switches and controllers that make it so that when you want to see something on the internet, you can see what you’re trying to see. It sends a signal back and forth. It’s used in all kinds of applications and the growth of so-called “cloud computing,” in which you’re using software and data that’s stored on somebody else’s computer far away.

This equipment has been around a long time. The company  Cisco has made gazillions of dollars on it. Software-defined networking is a system that is replacing some of the mechanical and electrical components of the switches and controllers with software.

You put it in your article as something that replaces actual, physical things with 1’s and 0’s that make up the software.

“Replacing atoms with bits” is how it’s been referred to for a long time.

How can that even be possible, to replace a physical thing with a non-physical thing?

Well, it’s everywhere. I used to have to click a big knob to change channels on my TV, and now you can do it with interface on the screen. That’s vaguely the same idea. It happens all the time. I don’t have to dial my telephone anymore—that’s all software-defined now. It’s using software to do mechanical things much, much, MUCH more quickly.

So bring this down into the real world again, David, and explain to me a real-world scenario in which this technology would come in handy.

Every time you go on the web. This is happening everywhere on the internet—it’s making those connections with online services possible. It’s why data centers can work these days, and why an awful lot of systems can be remote, it’s why you get so much virtual stuff. This is the invisible underpinnings of the whole online world.

And it’s being test driven at the lab in Durham. What’s the role of the UNH Interoperability Lab in this technology?

The UNH IOL has been around since the early 90’s. It’s an unsung hero in the state’s tech scene. It got established to help different computer and networking equipment systems work together. It creates a standard for software networking.

So for example, Company A will build something and Company B will build something; they’ll each make various decisions along the way, and then when the customer tries to use both of them at once, they somehow interfere with each other. And that’s where you need a standards body—a group to do the dullest but most important of industrial things: setting standards.

You also need an objective group like the UNH IOL to test them and make sure they meet the standards and are compatible. The lab has been doing this for close to 20 years now. They just started a consortium this month that examines software-developed networking. Software-developed networking is partly an open-architecture system, meaning anybody can use. But there are a number of private companies developing their own. So it’s important that they communicate in a standardized way.

In order to do that, the UNH IOL has set up a consortium. Private companies pay to join the consortium in exchange for a UNH certification saying all their equipment works together. The lab has enough of a reputation that its certification matters.  The lab has certifications in a number of different fields, and now the software-defined network is the latest field it’s moved into.

So what you’re talking about, essentially, is standards, and whether or not software-defined networking is going to fit in.

Yes, it’s to make sure that certain pieces of equipment work together. It’s like a good housekeeping seal of approval, except with technology behind it instead of whatever housekeeping people use.