UNH lab peers under the hood as software invades network systems

  • Participants test controllers known as NVMe 1.1 devices in a “PlugFest” at the UNH InterOperability Lab last year. UNH InterOperability Lab

Published: 8/2/2016 2:48:22 AM

You may have heard the quip “software is eating the world” to describe the way many tasks once done by people or machines are now being done by computers and computer networks. Turns out, software is eating computer networks, too.

For years, the UNH InterOperability Lab in Durham, one of the state’s quietest high-tech success stories, has been testing networking hardware like Ethernet switches and controllers, the machinery that makes the internet work, via consortiums of industry and academic participants. As of Monday, it has turned its attention to Software-Defined Networking, a fairly new process in which bits are replacing atoms inside that machinery.

“This is the next evolution in networking; it’s a dynamic change,” said Timothy Winters, the IOL’s senior executive. “It’s going from human interaction with devices . . . to having your network be programmed.”

It’s also the latest transition for the lab, which is well known within the world of networked systems but until it moved to its new home in downtown Durham last year was invisible to the rest of us.

“The joke I used to say is we’re better known in Japan than we are in New Hampshire, but I think the new building has helped change that,” said Winters, who started with the IOL as an undergraduate years ago. “People have become more aware of us – we have a lot more visitors than we used to have.”

The laboratory is pretty old by tech standards. Its first consortium was created back in 1990 when the university’s Research Computing Center was testing equipment for an internal network and realized that equipment from two different vendors were incompatible. It brought the companies together to solve the problem, and a business model was born.

The InterOperability Lab has basically been doing the same thing ever since via consortiums created around different technologies. It acts sometimes like Consumer Reports to test how well different equipment does what it says it will and sometimes like an industry standards group that gets firms to agree on how their widgets should play well with each other, hence the name “interoperability.”

The lab may be best known outside of the networking industry for its role helping push the world into IPv6, the updated addressing system for an overcrowded internet. I’ve been writing about UNH-IOL and IPv6 for more than a decade, but there’s still work to be done: Pokémon Go, for example, sometimes fails because it was designed for IPv4, the old addressing system.

The lab’s reputation is so good that companies pay be part of its consortiums. Winters said it has an operating budget in the $10 million range, although it varies depending on who’s participating in what, and that figure is covered entirely by industry payments. No tuition money or state funds are involved, he said.

It’s a sizeable place, with about 120 undergraduates who are paid to work there (the IOL offers no academic credit but plenty of resume points), plus around 10 graduate students and 20 full-time staff.

Its 28,000-square-foot facility on Madbury Road opened last year, and has hosted a couple of events, known as PlugFest and AppFest, around non-proprietary systems being developed and touted by the Open Networking Foundation. The success of those events and ensuring interest led directly to the expansion into Software-Defined Networking.

For those who aren’t intimate with the details of computer network architecture – that would be me – suffice it to say that a big appeal of SDN is the way software systems can change and grow more rapidly and easily. In a world of massive data centers and cloud systems (“cloud” meaning “staggering numbers of inter-connected computers that are controlled by somebody else and used by you”), firms need to be able to quickly change performance levels of their systems, and enlarge them at breakneck speed. That is more feasible with systems made of software than systems made of hardware – hence SDN.

Shifting into SDN also helps the lab’s other role, of education.

“We want to get students working with the technology because it is what is going on out in the world. We want to give them real-world experience,” Winters said.

As to whether software is going to eat the world of network equipment, or whether that’s a wild overstatement from a reporter looking to grab some attention (who, me?), Winters is cautious.

“Over time it might replace some of the older protocols we test here. That sort of depends on how it gets deployed in the world,” Winters said.

In other words, we’ll see. But it’s nice to know that some of that seeing will be done in New Hampshire.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


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