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Healthcare provider finds SDN is the proper Rx

John Dix | May 22, 2014
William Hanna, vice president of technical services at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), went out looking for a way to add capacity to a backup network and found what he wanted in Software Defined Networking (SDN) tools from Alcatel-Lucent. Network World Editor in Chief John Dix sat down with Hanna to learn about the process and experience.

William Hanna, vice president of technical services at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), went out looking for a way to add capacity to a backup network and found what he wanted in Software Defined Networking (SDN) tools from Alcatel-Lucent. Network World Editor in Chief John Dix sat down with Hanna to learn about the process and experience.

Let's start with a quick synopsis of your tech environment.

UPMC is an $11 billion per year healthcare payer and provider, so we have a health plan and we also provide care in Western Pennsylvania and internationally. We have approximately 450 remote sites, including 21 hospitals, and we support everything out of a couple data centers. We tie it all together with an MPLS core network that we run using about 150 carrier-grade MPLS routers — we're in the process of replacing Alcatel-Lucent's 7750 Platform to the 7950 SRX, which is their latest MPLS router — linked over multiple fiber rings, and then a WAN attaches to that.

We started doing virtualization with IBM on the AIX platform (very large pSeries machines) and VMware on the Intel side back in 2006, and now close to 90% of our hosts are virtualized. On the x86 side we buy IBM servers and each supports 60 to 80 operating system instances (either Windows or Linux) and we have more than 6,500 VMware instances across both data centers.

Our data center network architecture was based on the Cisco 6500 Platform, and then later the Nexus Platform. We've used Cisco equipment since the early '90s. There's nothing wrong with it, but we didn't have a way to provision the network that was up to date with what was happening with server virtualization. To provision network connections — dealing with virtual LANs, IP addressing schemes, DNS and everything else — was taking two to three weeks. The laggard was truly the network itself. So that provisioning time was one of the things driving our interest in SDN.

So that's where you started with SDN?

Actually the first SDN opportunity for us was when we needed to add capacity to our backup network as we were growing. The backup network is essentially a Layer 2 network that spans both data centers, and its sole purpose is backup. It's very important, but that is all it does. Some of the Cisco and some of the Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise equipment on that network was nearing end-of-life, end-of-support, so we had to make new investments as we grew. 

So, going back to our Alcatel-Lucent carrier-grade routers for a moment — we have enjoyed using their SROS operating system in the core network for some time. It's very stable, and Nuage was created with a subset of the engineers that did SROS, and they came to us several years ago and said, "Hey, would you be interested in a product to put in your data center based on SROS that supports this thing called Software Defined Networking?" And so a little over a year ago we started getting pretty serious about this and running trials of Nuage in our test networks. We did a number of tests with bare metal servers and VMware to test out the principles of SDN, failover and provisioning and all of those things, and they all worked very well. 

 

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