Leading Healthcare Organization Wades Deeper into SDN Waters

By Jude Chao | Jan 16, 2014 | Print this Page
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Another enterprise has placed its bet on SDN. Today, Pittsburgh-based UPMC announced plans to deploy the Nuage Networks SDN platform in its backup network, with an eye to eventual implementation in its production network.

Drivers to adopt SDN

With over $10 billion in annual provider revenue, 62,000 employees across a network of 22 hospitals and 400 doctors' offices and outpatient sites, and a health insurance division with over 2.2 million members, University of Pittsburgh-affiliated UPMC had been feeling the pressure to speed up provisioning times, according to Bill Hanna, UPMC's VP of technical services. IT in health care, as in other enterprises, is mission-critical, enabling voice, data, and other applications and services necessary to day-to-day operations. And when it came to UPMC's infrastructure, weeks-long provisioning times "were fine when you were at bare metal systems, because you did them every 3 to 4 years, but with virtual systems—VMware specifically—things move very quickly," he told me. UPMC uses both VMware and IBM for virtualization and found, Hanna said, that "the laggard was the network."

SDN's scale and capacity capabilities were also factors, as well as the simpler multitenancy that software defined networking can make possible. And from a cost standpoint, SDN "is pretty cost neutral," Hanna said, citing the advantageous additional features the technology will bring.

Why Nuage?

A number of SDN solutions already exist, including Cisco's hardware-based Application Centric Infrastructure, Plexxi's similarly application-driven but more software-focused solution, and VMware's entirely software-based approach, but for UPMC, Nuage Networks, Alcatel-Lucent's SDN venture, proved the most attractive choice. UPMC has been an Alcatel-Lucent customer since 2007, Hanna said, with a strong relationship with the company. A few years ago, Alcatel-Lucent asked UPMC whether the organization had any interest in an SDN-type platform. UPMC said yes.

"We've been in since really the beginning, before it was a released product," Hanna said. Over the past six months, UPMC has been trying out Nuage's products in its test network. Now the organization is ready to take the next step.

"It's racked and stacked and cabled," Hanna said. "We're starting production tests this week and then full production in the next week and a half to two weeks."

The products and the roadmap

UPMC will be deploying the Nuage Networks Virtualized Services Platform (VSP), which includes the software-based Nuage Networks Virtualized Services Controller (VSC) and Virtualized Services Directory (VSD). UPMC will also make use of the Nuage Networks 7850 Virtualized Services Gateway (VSG). The VSG works with the VSP to extend SDN functionality—in particular, policy enforcement and automation—to non-virtual infrastructures.

Provisioning time will be one of the key metrics by which UPMC plans to gauge the deployment's success. Hanna also named uptime and failover as other critical areas to consider and expressed confidence that both will meet expectations.

Hanna is so confident in the Nuage platform, in fact, that he expects UPMC to begin to move to SDN in its production network within the year. Since UPMC has been conducting extensive tests in its own test network, "the jump to the backup network being in production is not a big one," he told me. And after that comes the next stage of UPMC's planned multi-year transition to SDN across its entire datacenter network infrastructure. Integrating the Nuage platform into the production network itself will require "hooking it into the existing Cisco Nexus infrastructure," he said. He predicted that that will begin to happen anytime between six to nine months from this point.

If all goes well, UPMC could prove instrumental in demonstrating SDN's utility within the enterprise. The unique pressures on the healthcare industry—the importance of the information its networks carry and the regulatory requirements healthcare enterprises must meet, among others—make it an especially interesting testing ground. As an early adopter of SDN, UPMC looks set to be a part of software defined networking history.

Header photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

ENP editor Jude ChaoJude Chao is managing editor of Enterprise Networking Planet. Follow her on Twitter @judechao.