Nicol analyzes resiliency of "wireless SDNs" through Boeing Collaboration


Information Trust Institute

Software defined networking (SDN), which centralizes the dynamic control of networks, simplifies the management of everything from large data centers to wireless networks. As such, they are increasingly employed by companies ranging from Amazon to The Boeing Company. However, a failure in an SDN could slow down processes and impact critical functions. Now, researchers led by Illinois ECE Professor David Malcolm Nicolthe Franklin W. Woeltge Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are working on technology to help Boeing, a longtime partner of Illinois’ Information Trust Institute, understand the impact of failures on their wireless SDNs.


David Malcolm Nicol
David Malcolm Nicol
Unlike traditional networks, SDNs rely on a controller, which serves as a central command for the network. The controller acts dynamically to changes in network requests, creating rules for routers, also known as switches, that are responsible for sending bytes of data from one point to another through a network. If a link fails, say from a hardware malfunction, it is the controller’s responsibility to determine an alternative route for the data. However, SDNs are vulnerable because they are so dependent on the controller that its failure could bring down the network. In the Boeing project, researchers are evaluating the resiliency of the network following a failure of the controller, through the use of so-called “fast failover” routes, which are included in the rules and can be used without consultation of the controller.


“For example, consider an ad-hoc emergency network set up in response to a hurricane or flood, where the network is deployed with switches on trucks connecting first responders to each other and to a command center,” said Nicol, the director of the ITI and the project’s principal investigator.


“The SDN controller would be airborne, say on a UAV. But if the UAV fails, or runs out of fuel, or is blown by high winds out of range of the switches, then we want to know how long the network can operate without the controller, even as the trucks continue to move, the network topology continues to change, and operations now begin to depend on pre-computed fast fail-over routes,” he said.


Nicol says the principal challenge for his team is that the Boeing controllers, the rules they create for switches, and the strategies they use to create fast failover routes are company-sensitive and unavailable to the researchers: “Our approach then is to develop an analysis framework that can be applied for any SDN in any failure scenario, and then support Boeing’s own use of that framework without seeing the particulars.”


The idea for the SDN project came out of previous work that Nicol and his team conducted for Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories under a Department of Energy contract that was administered through ITI. Unlike the Boeing project, which is focused on dynamic networks, Schweitzer was most interested in using SDNs to help their engineers create routes for networks in its electrical substations that include fast failover protections.


“At the end of the day, we intend for this tool to help better understand the big picture of what is happening in a software-defined network as the topology dynamically changes,” Nicol said. Nicol is also affiliated with the CSL.


Check out the original article on the ITI site.