SDN education: Universities tackle SDN course content

Universities would like to create SDN education programs, but SDN courses are difficult to plan since the technology is rapidly evolving.

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Earlier this year, Georgia Tech announced it would offer a six-week online course on software-defined networking, making the school one of the first to offer a class focused on the emerging technology. The course, which started in June, examines the fundamentals of SDN, virtual networking, control and data plane separation, and how to program SDN.

Many universities are considering similar programs, but they're finding it difficult to plan SDN education programs and SDN courses, since the technology is new and is constantly evolving. For now, some universities are integrating the content into their existing networking or IT courses. But, over time, programs that range from full-fledged university courses to professional SDN certification will emerge, and they'll reflect the general shift that's occurring in IT, said Brad Casemore, director of data center networking at IDC.

"We're having to take a more comprehensive and holistic approach to IT, and that's certainly true in the data center," Casemore said. "Everything has to be aligned to be successful, and there has to be scalability, cost effectiveness and flexibility."

What that means for SDN education is that network engineers must learn about more than basic hardware implementation and management. They have to learn how to support virtualization and its implications, said Casemore, and programming in order to use it in ways that were never required in a solely hardware world. As a result, more interdisciplinary training is on the horizon, with an emphasis on how to operationalize around technology. "That's going to be a big change in universities and in the professional world," he said.

Top universities jump onboard the SDN train

Universities are experiencing major changes as the demand for SDN courses and programs grows, and Casemore said general classes focusing on SDN basics are hard to develop. Some major universities, like Stanford and Berkeley are "on the forefront of SDN development," but, generally speaking, courses can lag behind because of "cutting-edge" data center developments, like hyper-scale environments. Without access to centers such as these, most colleges and universities are challenged when it comes to developing current content in a timely fashion.

As soon as you develop [SDN content], it's going to be outdated ... there are too many idiosyncrasies and specifications. You'd have to develop it while you teach -- at this point anyways.

As a result, Casemore continued, institutions have to depend more on their own research and independent study programs to learn about SDN. "It's going to be incumbent on universities to learn from the brightest lights and take what they've done and incorporate it into their curriculum," he said.

Experimenting with SDN and slowly integrating it into a classroom setting is Robert Cannistra's approach at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Cannistra, senior professional lecturer of computer science and information technology, spearheaded the college's venture into SDN back in 2011, after the university was given a faculty grant by IBM to figure out what SDN was all about.

Cannistra and his team used the grant money to form an SDN certification lab, where Cannistra worked outside the classroom with students to write and develop modules for the OpenFlow Floodlight controller. Cannistra had a few independent study students who focused on SDN, one of which built a host-aware networking module that grew into a pilot program by the end of the semester. "We're taking that to the next level with my team," Cannistra said. "Another student was completely new to SDN, so we developed a tutorial and walked through how to get started in SDN and OpenFlow, [as well as] what's different about it and what it could change in the future. I see that as a big stepping stone to developing a class at Marist."

The college doesn't have a full course dedicated to SDN, but Cannistra did want to see how viable SDN was in the classroom. "I did a few experiments in the classroom and played around with different projects and presentations this past year," he said. However, Cannistra recognized the challenges that come with developing SDN-based content to teach.

"As soon as you develop it, it's going to be outdated," he said. "So, I can't write the entire class right now to be taught in the spring semester because there are too many advances in SDN ... you can do that with the fundamentals, but there are too many idiosyncrasies and specifications. You'd have to develop it while you teach -- at this point anyways."

Some of the students who worked with Cannistra in the SDN certification lab and on other experiments have now graduated and have been hired in the private sector to develop and implement SDN technologies.

The future of SDN in the classroom

Though Cannistra says it's too early to teach course solely focused on SDN, he has considered how he would present the technology in the classroom. This fall he'll incorporate SDN in a limited capacity into his classes by taking 16 different OpenFlow-capable switches and creating an enterprise network.

His approach may be smaller scale than that of The City University of New York just south of him.

"CUNY is developing courses in SDN, and they're taking a bigger approach than I would," he said. CUNY is giving students meta personal digital assistant (PDA) cards, which Cannistra called "glorified network interface cards." These cards plug into a PC or server and navigate a sole test development environment for SDN and OpenFlow, allowing students to write programs with a PC.

SDN classes at CUNY's New York City College of Technology (City Tech) in Brooklyn are still in the works but are slated to be offered come the spring semester of 2014 at the earliest, said Casimer DeCusatis, distinguished engineer at IBM and CTO for the company's system networking strategic alliances group. DeCusatis acts as a consultant to a number of institutions and is working with Cannistra at Marist as well as at City Tech, where his wife Carolyn DeCusatis, Ph.D., an adjunct assistant professor, is spearheading the SDN program. Carolyn is also working with Aparicio Carranza, assistant professor and chair of the electromechanical and computer engineering technology department at the college, to get the program off the ground.

DeCusatis said that Columbia University has also expressed interest in the upcoming SDN program at CUNY's City Tech. "Columbia has experience using these [PDA] cards," he said. "They have students who've worked with them in the past. So they're willing with work with ... CUNY on this development of a program to teach people about SDN."

Decusatis added that this partnership is still in the early stages, but both parties are excited to pursue a partnership.

Marist SDN plans

Eventually Cannistra said he would like to teach SDN by allowing each student or pair of students to have one or two OpenFlow-capable switches that connect back to their own controller. Later in the course, students would tie "pods" together to create different islands and essentially build an enterprise or service provider network in the classroom. He added that the potential of software-defined networking, combined with younger, soon-to-be engineers, can result in SDN use cases that even he couldn't think of.

"Someone still in college ... has a completely different view of what networking is and what it could be," he said. "Some of my students say, 'We can do this with SDN,' and I say 'No,' and 24 hours later, they've created a module that does just what they wanted it to. SDN, all together, is going to shake up the industry."

This was first published in July 2013

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