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City University London moves towards SDN with Avaya Fabric Connect

Avaya Fabric Connect helps City University London move towards software-defined infrastructure and streamlines its network deployment

London's City University has increased its network capacity and resilience, and reduced the amount of time it spends deploying network upgrades after moving its network onto Avaya’s software-defined networking (SDN) system, Avaya Fabric Connect.

One of the UK’s foremost public research universities, City University London traces its history back to the 1890s. It took on its current form and name under the terms of a Royal Charter granted in 1966, which established it as a university.

It is based in Islington with additional facilities located in Holborn, Smithfield and Whitechapel, all in central London. Its academic departments and centres include the Inns of Court School of Law and the Cass Business School, which is ranked in the top 40 in its class globally.

The university's IT department serves around 17,000 students, 2,000 staff and 600 visiting lecturers, and manages a network that must – at peak times – accommodate 5,000 Wi-Fi network users and 6,000 wired connections.

Flat and Cisco-based

Up until about eight years ago, the university had run what networking lead Paulo Leal describes as a “very flat network” based primarily around Cisco switches, with very little wireless capability and no resilience built in.

Around the mid-point of the previous decade, the IT department was increasingly challenged by requests for more bandwidth and capacity on its network from across the board, which Leal says was something of a nightmare because his team feared the changes would be extremely disruptive.

Leal moved City University’s infrastructure away from Cisco and became a Nortel Enterprise customer at that time, shortly before the venerable Canadian networking supplier went under and its administrators strip-mined its assets in an attempt to recover its debts.

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It was in July 2009 that Avaya appeared on the horizon, snapping up the assets, customers and channel partners of the fallen Nortel for $475m, later rising to $900m.

City University was one of the customers that went across to Avaya at that time, and in 2011 it began using an early iteration of its Fabric Connect SDN architecture.

Fabric Connect

Avaya describes Fabric Connect as a contiguous, end-to-end fabric that empowers businesses to achieve “unprecedented levels of infrastructure productivity, service agility and network dependability”.

It was designed to respond to shifts in application architecture away from simple client-server set-ups to complex, composite designs, as well as the adoption of virtualisation, mobility and so on.

Avaya claims Fabric Connect enhances productivity by optimising network deployment, implementation, operation and maintenance.

Liberating the business from the topology constraints of rival systems, it says, the Fabric Connect architecture allows network owners considerably more freedom of choice when it comes to laying out components and interconnections, with end-to-end connectivity automatically calculated and recalculated after any changes, whether planned or not.

Before Fabric Connect came along, says Avaya, networks were either provisioned ad hoc as the network manager dictated, or pre-provisioned en masse prior to deployment, neither of which is conducive to effective operation.

According to Leal, City University’s prime motivator for moving to Fabric Connect was to eliminate complexity at the core of the network and make it more resilient, and therefore better able to run the multitude of services required.

Moving to Fabric Connect across the campus and our datacentres means that we no longer have to touch the core, just the edge switches

Paulo Leal, City University London

“Making changes to the network was challenging because it was prone to errors,” says Leal. “Moving to Fabric Connect across the campus and our datacentres means that we no longer have to touch the core, just the edge switches.

“And because we already had the hardware in place when we upgraded to Fabric Connect, we didn’t have to do a forklift upgrade – for us it was an upgrade delivered by email – in one week it was ready.”

Multiple tenants

With 17,000 students and multiple stakeholders, Leal was also able to use Fabric Connect to extend the capabilities of the campus Wi-Fi network into halls of residence to accommodate the growing demand for connectivity.

Using Fabric Connect, he was able to completely separate the wireless users from the rest of the network, using virtualised firewalls to regulate access to internal services and the internet to prevent any potential miscreants on the student body from being able to access the core layer.

Besides students, City University has also been extending out to other tenants on campus, including some of the catering companies that run its cafes and bars, which wanted to be able to run their point-of-sale equipment over the same network.

“As more tenants and research projects come online, we can deploy services across the campus very quickly for them,” says Leal. “It takes maybe a 20-minute discussion, an hour to write the script, and 10 to 15 minutes to implement it.”

The university is also now in the process of implementing automatic provision of network policies for developers connected to the network, and has plans to extend further into virtualised environments and cloud services.

Read more on Software-defined networking (SDN)