SDN and InteropNet: Cranking up and running world's biggest temporary network

It starts with a gathering in a warehouse in Brisbane, Calif. Vendor reps, volunteers and networking experts of all stripes meet to create an enormous temporary network using products from 23 different companies, test it within an inch of its life -- and then stuff it on to trucks drive it out to Las Vegas.

Handling Internet access for all of Interop 2013 -- everything from sophisticated tech demos to CEO emails -- is an unsurprisingly complicated task. With 13,000 attendees and more than 300 exhibitors, demand is constant.

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"I would say [InteropNet] is equivalent to some decent-size enterprises. I wouldn't go into Fortune 100 kind of stuff, but the number of users being supported is in the thousands, so you're talking a larger mid-sized enterprise. ... Lots of edge routing, multiple co-locations," estimates E.J. Dath, a senior advanced solutions architect at Brocade.

Dath is a veteran of InteropNet, thanks to his time at Vyatta, a virtual networking company that was acquired by Brocade last summer.

Not only does InteropNet have to get planned, built, tested, shipped and reactivated on-site in a mere matter of weeks, it has to handle a particularly Internet-thirsty crowd.

"Somebody walks in the door [to the Interop show floor], they may have three devices or more that are communicating [with the Wi-Fi network], and if they're working in the booth, they might have booth gear that trying to connect," he says.

Since wired drops cost money, Dath says, everyone tries to get by on the Wi-Fi provided -- with predictable results.

"It's all very crowded when you've got this thing cranked up during the busy days on the show floor," he says.

The company operates three co-location sites across the country -- one in Sunnyvale, Calif., one in Denver and one in Newark, for the smaller Interop New York show. In years past, Vyatta products have been responsible for the routing and firewalling in the Denver site, but this year, according to Dath, the lately acquired company is also providing edge routing for the entire show floor, along with a 100G link between the Denver and California co-location sites.

"This year, we actually have gear on the floor itself, so things will be a little different, for sure," he says. "It's a little different, too, because we're more 'core network' at this point, and some of the teams that really work on the pedestals and things that service the show floor itself, right below the edge routing aspects of what we're doing -- those guys often troubleshoot all kinds of crazy things that go on."

The network operations teams and other IT personnel that staff the show floor and the NOC are volunteers, coming from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some are affiliated with the official InteropNet vendors, but many are not. Despite the heterogeneous nature of the team, it's a pretty collegial atmosphere.

Dave Link, the CEO of network monitoring vendor ScienceLogic, is another InteropNet old hand -- his company has been involved in the project for the last five years.

"Some of the brightest operations and [network operations center] guys from around the globe -- not just from the vendors, because the vendors come with their best [systems engineers] and engineering resources, often with code that's beta code, or their latest and greatest products -- and they come, again, in the spirit of making sure it's going to work at Interop together," he says. "There's a focus on solving the problem, regardless of what that fix is."

ScienceLogic's task, like those of all companies participating in InteropNet, requires careful coordination and immense attention to detail. As the front end for the operational monitoring and management functions, the company's product needs to interface flawlessly with everything else on the network.

The new prominence of software-defined networking, Link admits, has made ScienceLogic's job a little more complicated. Compensating for the transient nature of SDN connections -- i.e., not sounding the alarm when a virtual link is purposefully dropped -- is a new wrinkle.

Being a part of InteropNet is a big potential PR boost for a vendor -- few companies would pass up the chance to demonstrate not only that their products work as advertised, but that they play well with others as well.

"We don't love filling out the 60-page [request for proposal] every year," quips Link, "but we do it because we love what this challenge represents."

However, all the attention can backfire if something goes wrong.

"Of course, we would like the volunteer network engineers to absolutely love [our product] -- if they were to come out with a big yawn and say 'that didn't help,' that would make me nervous," says Carl Moberg, vice president for technology at software-defined networking provider Tail-f Systems.

It's Tail-f's first time as a part of InteropNet. So while Moberg is a little nervous, he says, that's outweighed by his excitement.

"I think nervousness goes through every vendor participating in something that puts you so much on a soapbox as the Interop show floor. ... Certainly we're nervous, and like with every centerline solution you can find, of course, we wouldn't want to screw up the network, but again, I think we're pretty confident," he asserts.

Tail-f's prominent role in this year's InteropNet -- the Swedish company's Network Control System is the SDN fabric of choice -- could add to the pressure. But the collegial atmosphere at the initial setup proved encouraging.

"It's a pretty positive competition -- if [companies are] in an environment where they know their own environment won't cut it ... people are pretty eager to help," he says. "They have their work cut out for them just to get this stuff working."

We'll see how everything turns out this week in Las Vegas.

Email Jon Gold at and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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