Engineering Senior Design team improves computer network accessibility

Photo+by+Devi+Shastri%2Fdevi.shastri%40marquette.edu

Photo by Devi Shastri/devi.shastri@marquette.edu

It’s 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning and the five members of a College of Engineering Senior Design team sit around a table in their advisor’s office, throwing out questions and listening intently for suggestions.

They’re working with cutting-edge technology to develop a system that will allow people to test their computer networks, making those networks easy to work with.

“We often have this question of if computer science is science, engineering or art,” advisor George Corliss said to them. “And the answer is yes.”

At the heart of the team’s work is a relatively new technology called software-defined networking. SDN is becoming more popular in the software industry because it saves money and more manageable. Because it’s so new, though its applications are not well-explored.

“What networks work as right now, if you have routers that are passing along the information and they have their own control mechanisms, they’re operating on their own,” said Rob Gries, a Senior Design team member. “SDN tries to take away the control from each individual router and tries to centralize control. What that does is it allows you to manage the entire network from one device which makes a lot of things much easier.”

Team members Gries, Paul Schmitt, Bill Braden, Sam Ostlund and Jake Chitel presented a pitch of their project in the Extreme Networks SDN Innovation Challenge at the end of last semester. They were one of 10 teams named finalists out of competitors who came from four different universities. Their next step will be submitting a “minimal viable product” demonstration that will allow the judges to see the system in action. Their plan for the system must be put into place by June 1.

“We’re designing an educational network emulator, which is fancy for a system that allows upper level computer science or computer engineering students, or professors or even people in the industry to configure computer networks (in) more of an easy-to-use manner (so they can) learn and test and be more innovative with technology,” Braden said.

This makes managing the performance, security and other aspects of a network simpler for the person running it. The team resoundingly agreed that without the opportunity to be in the competition and in their Senior Design class, they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work with sophisticated technology.

“It’s still a very fairly new technology and … it’s really cutting-edge,” Schmitt said. “So to be having the experience here at Marquette with this competition is really exciting.”

As a result of being finalists, the team has received resources to help them develop their system. They set up a lab in Cudahy Hall with equipment provided by Extreme Networks so they can begin work on the implementation of their design. If their project is selected, they will attend an award ceremony and show their final demo. Winners will also be announced.

“We’re exploring a new technology and learning how to adapt to a changing industry,” Ostlund said.