PhD topic: ProgNets 2.0

Active and programmable networks were a popular research area about 15 years ago but eventually faded due to security and isolation concerns (how do I trust someone else’s code to run on my router’s interface?), and the lack of adoption by the industry that was at the time making money from offering high-bandwidth products and services.

All this has now changed: resource (server, network) virtualisation has been pervasive, allowing the efficient sharing of the physical infrastructure; and network operators and service providers now try to differentiate based on services they offer over virtualised infrastructures. In this new landscape, Software-Defined Networking (SDN) has emerged over the past five years as a new paradigm for dynamically-configured next generation networks, and has already been embraced by major equipment vendors (e.g., HP, Cisco, etc.) and service providers (e.g., Google).

Fundamental to SDN is the idea that the whole control plane is abstracted from individual network nodes and all network-wide functionality is configured centrally in software. Switches and routers are therefore reduced to general-purpose devices (in contrast to the legacy, vertically-integrated and vendor-controller platforms) that perform fast packet switching and are being configured on-demand through a defined API (e.g., Openflow). All functionality that then controls the network (e.g., spanning tree computation, shortest-path routing, access control lists, etc.) is provided by a (set of) central controller(s), and the resulting rules are installed on the switches through the Openflow API. This separation between the network’s data and control planes is a first step in ‘softwarising’ future networks but is still a long way from enabling true programmability through softwarisation.

The overarching objective of this PhD project is to design next generation, fully programmable Software-Defined Networks above and beyond the current state-of-the-art. Currently, the main SDN implementation through Openflow lacks any support for real-time programmable service deployment, since it centralises all intelligence (and programmability) around a (set of) controller(s). Future, service-oriented architectures will need to provide data path programmability through distributing intelligence to the network nodes. This is the only way to support the deployment of real-time programmable services in the data path (e.g., distributed network monitoring and control, performance-based provisioning, anomaly detection, dynamic firewalls, etc.).

The work will entail experimental research in protocols and languages for network programmability, in switch architectures, and the software-hardware interface. It will explore platform-independent language representations and runtimes (e.g., bytecodes and intermediate representations) that can allow custom processing at the switches without requiring the manual extension of protocol fields to support new functionality and at the same time offer bound data forwarding performance. The work will also include the design of exemplar time-critical services that will benefit from such underlying network architecture.

The research will be conducted as part of the Networked Systems Research Laboratory at the School of Computing Science and the student will be given access to a state-of-the-art SDN testbed with fully programmable platforms at all software and hardware layers. Through the strong experimental nature of this project, the student will contribute to a currently buzzing research area, and will be equipped with highly demanded expertise in Software-Defined Networks, and next generation network architectures.

Competitive scholarships are available for UK/EU students (and a very limited number for students from elsewhere).

Contact Dr Dimitrios Pezaros if you want to discuss the above project further.

Details of how to apply can be found on the Postgraduate research opportunities page.