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U.S. lab considers SDN for growing ESnet research network

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has turned to SDN and Corsa data-plane appliances in tackling soaring demand on ESnet research network.

Inder Monga of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is responsible for a U.S. Department of Energy network that's doubling in capacity each year. By 2020, the research network that connects scientists in the U.S. and Europe is projected to carry an exabyte of data each month.

Monga, CTO at Energy Sciences Network (ESnet), can't satisfy such a high demand for capacity by building a larger network each year. "We cannot keep growing our network cost at an exponential rate," he said. "Otherwise, our taxes will go up exponentially."

ESnet is an unclassified network that connects more than 40 Department of Energy research sites, including the National Laboratory system and its supercomputing facilities. ESnet also connects to 140 research and commercial networks globally.

Researchers using the high-speed network collaborate on scientific projects related to energy, climate science and the origins of the universe. The scientists' work involves sharing huge files that make network capacity and cost a constant challenge.

Monga is looking for solutions to the capacity-cost dilemma using a software-defined networking (SDN) system based on a second-generation Corsa Technology data-plane appliance, which the vendor expects to release in July.

Today, the Berkeley lab uses eight of Corsa's first-generation boxes to run a test bed of multipoint virtual private networks on top of ESnet. Each VPN is dedicated to multiple facilities on the network.

Plans for next-gen Corsa appliances

By the end of the year, Monga expects to replace the hardware with Corsa's latest device, which introduces a feature called network hardware virtualization. The capability will let the lab test whether virtual switches can help it make better use of network capacity.

With the hardware, the lab can build the switches and dedicate each to a particular purpose. For example, engineers could use some switches for regular research traffic while others handle testing of network services that are under development.

"When researchers want to do crazy things, you want to give them an isolated space," Monga said. "We can do innovation and add new software capabilities while supporting the production traffic."

Monga believes running virtual switches on the appliances will show they are less expensive than alternatives, such as building virtual LANs (VLANs) or adding MPLS links. Also, the hardware is expected to let network operators integrate IP routing with the multipoint VPNs.

The lab plans to build the system's intelligence in an SDN controller, which will use the OpenFlow communication protocol to assign traffic to the individual switches based on policies set by ESnet engineers. The lab hasn't decided whether to build the controller or use the open source version from OpenDaylight.

Monga is optimistic that deploying the Corsa appliances will help in testing ways to achieve the network efficiency he's hoping for. He also believes the SDN model will eventually help in delivering the flexibility required to meet the anticipated growth in data traffic.

Next Steps

Reaching SDN, network virtualization harmony

Network orchestration and virtualization in SDN

An introduction to REST APIs in SDN

Dig Deeper on Network hardware and SDN

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