ESnet Showcases Functionality of SDN in Trans-Pacific Demonstration

December 14, 2015

ESnet, along with collaborators in Florida and Australia, recently demonstrated another step on the path to software-defined networking by building a low-cost switch running open source software and using it to do a nine-way videoconference across the Pacific Ocean.

The three-and-a-half hour demonstration was featured at the OpenTech OZ SDN Symposium in Sydney, Australia, as part of the Dec. 14 formal launch of Australia’s software defined networking (SDN) testbed.

 “We wanted to see if we could replace a typical router with a ‘white box’ switch and an open source software stack,” said Chin Guok of ESnet’s Network Engineering Team, “and use it to support IP routing of network traffic. The success of the demo means that using SDN to replace a conventional router can be a viable solution.”

The switch cost less than $20,000 – far below the price of a high-end router which can cost upwards of $100,000. That price gets you a router that has all the proprietary components and software integrated into a single unit that can “talk” to other routers using standard protocols, Guok said.

Guok said the demo was meant to show a functional model, but was not production-ready yet. “The issue is that the software is from the open source community and there is not a strong support model if it were deployed in a production network. There’s no one to call if the software fails and needs to be fixed urgently.”

The project does have a couple of interesting parallels in computing, he said. First, the software is drawing the attention of commercial firms, just as the Linux operating system was open source, but was made more robust and supported by a number of companies. Second, the use of commercial components to build a lower-cost system is similar to the emergence of cluster computers as rivals to the very specialized HPC systems 15 years ago.

For the project, dubbed SDX for software-defined exchange, ESnet staff set it up as a standalone autonomous network separate from ESnet, and then peered with it. The switch then pushed information down to an ESnet router and Border Gateway Protocol messages were exchanged between ESnet and AARnet, Australia’s Academic and Research Network.

Guok said it took about two years to build the SDX, but only five to 10 minutes to set up the links for the demo, about the same amount of time needed to create the same set-up on a production network.

“It’s not quite ready for prime time, but the functionality is there,” Guok said. “I think we’re about a year away – we still have a lot of shake-down testing to do.”