SDN can help unify wired and wireless campus networks

Campus networks can be difficult to manage, especially with the continuing need to unify Wi-Fi and Ethernet networks. But SDN's centralized approach can improve security and QoS.

IT professionals are faced with the challenge of unifying the management, control and security of their Wi-Fi and...

Ethernet switch-based campus networks. Software-defined networking, or SDN, controllers can benefit campus networks by offering centralized management and automation, improved security and application-level quality of service across the network. During 2017, look for leading network suppliers to improve their campus wired and wireless integration capabilities via SDN.

Campus networks are traditionally built on tiers of wired Ethernet switches from suppliers that include Cisco, Juniper Networks and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE). Spending on wired Ethernet switches continues to significantly outpace spending on Wi-Fi equipment. Of course, the vast majority of office locations have Wi-Fi access in addition to Ethernet switches to support nomadic workers, conference rooms, contractors and guests. A minority of campus sites -- generally, smaller locations -- use Wi-Fi access only.

The challenge for IT professionals is to unify wired and wireless network management, control and security. The Wi-Fi market has evolved independently of the Ethernet switching market and is significantly ahead of campus Ethernet switching in terms of deploying centralized management capabilities either on premises or in the cloud. Additionally, suppliers have different -- and incompatible -- hardware and software for Wi-Fi and Ethernet switching.

Benefits and examples of SDN in campus networks

SDN controllers, with their central access to traffic flows, bring a number of benefits to campus networks.

Campus networks require high-speed access for a variety of devices, high reliability for 24/7 year-round operations, broad-based security, and centralized management and operations. The rise of BYOD requires the network to provide device provisioning, security and traffic handling. Some organizations require campus networks that can be segmented to isolate traffic flows for security, compliance or other business requirements. SDN controllers, with their central access to traffic flows, bring a number of benefits to campus networks, including the following:

  • Centralized management. The ability to leverage automated tools to provision, configure and manage network access to Wi-Fi and Ethernet switches. SDN helps codify the necessary processes for configuring all network services an application requires.
  • Security. The ability to offer appropriate security policies for the range of devices that connect to the campus network -- i.e., PCs, smartphones, internet of things (IoT) devices and guests -- with network segmentation and isolation. SDN also supports third-party security software, including intrusion detection and prevention systems and firewalls.
  • Application prioritization. The ability to identify specific traffic types, like voice and video, and prioritize network resources to deliver the appropriate quality of service (QoS).
  • Location-based services. IT organizations in wireless-centric environments, like healthcare and hospitality, for example, currently leverage Wi-Fi's location-based services to keep track of users and devices roaming around their networks. As IoT becomes more pervasive in large organizations, location-based services will become more mainstream.
  • Programmability. SDN allows third-party partners and network operations to program the network via open APIs. For example, a Microsoft Skype for Business API communicates with a controller, setting higher QoS policies for unified communications sessions.

A number of suppliers provide integrated wireless and Ethernet switching options. The two most prominent are Cisco Meraki and HPE's Aruba. Both Cisco and HPE leverage SDN to provide centralized management, control and security for their network offerings. Both plan product releases in 2017 that use SDN to improve the integration of Wi-Fi and Ethernet switching in campus environments. Other notable suppliers are Brocade, Dell, Aerohive Networks and Juniper.

Recommendations for IT managers

The campus network is a critical resource to allow a range of users and devices access to data center and cloud resources. Wireless and wired Ethernet products have evolved independently, each with its own management system, security and APIs. IT organizations can benefit from unified SDN-based services that provide integrated network management and security across campus networks. Existing SDN services are more advanced on the wireless side of campus networks, however, and less prevalent among wired, Ethernet switch infrastructure.

Leading suppliers plan to advance their integrated campus products this year using SDN technology. But these offerings will generally be specific to each vendor and may have limited interoperability with third-party network equipment. The organizations with existing or planned IoT projects should carefully evaluate a supplier's ability to integrate, secure and manage a range of devices, as this capability is still emerging in many product offerings.

Next Steps

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Ethernet over the years

This was last published in January 2017

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