Curtin University collaboration helps Cisco explore new analytics-based security models

Real-world usage data to refine scanning of encrypted traffic without decrypting it

On hand to launch the $7m Curtin-Cisco Centre for Intent-Based Networking were (l to r) Tom Goerke of Cisco Innovation Central; Scott Harrell of Cisco; Professor Deborah Terry and Professor Chris Moran of Curtin University

On hand to launch the $7m Curtin-Cisco Centre for Intent-Based Networking were (l to r) Tom Goerke of Cisco Innovation Central; Scott Harrell of Cisco; Professor Deborah Terry and Professor Chris Moran of Curtin University

Curtin University officials have welcomed the extensive network built to support the new Centre for Intent-Based Networking (CIBN) – which the university launched this week in conjunction with Cisco – as a live test bed for efforts to improve detection of security issues and threats whilst preserving the security and privacy of the traffic on the network.

Even as new technology standards like Wi-Fi 6 and 5G mobile promise faster and easier connectivity, security has emerged as a particular challenge in ensuring this connectivity is safe and limited to those who should be accessing the network.

“We have many thousands of students with many devices,” said Curtin University vice-chancellor professor Deborah Terry, who said the Cisco-powered network is “part of our vision of using the university as a testbed, to test the implications of the new network and systems on things like security.”

Curtin and Cisco have been partnering since 2016, along with Data61/CSIRO and Woodside, to build out the Innovation Central Perth (ICP) Co-Innovation Centre that has worked on nearly 80 projects with over 300 companies.

CIBN will be collocated with ICP on the university’s Perth campus, where Cisco is helping Curtin shape an intent-based curriculum that will deliver online and classroom training in software-defined networking (SDN) skills to a range of academic and research audiences.

Intent-based networking is Cisco’s umbrella term for software-defined networks where the network and supporting applications work in lockstep to manage users’ network experience through heavy use of analytics, automation, and flexible security capabilities.

University networks provided “the highest degree of diversity” because they tend to be “heterogeneous and at the cutting edge of what you will see in any particular environment,” Cisco senior vice president and general manager of Enterprise Networking Scott Harrell said while announcing the $7m partnership.

The software-driven intent-based network environment includes extensive analytics that report on WiFi and fixed network usage in real time – providing new insights into network usage that both help administrators streamline performance and speed adjustments to ensure a consistent user experience.

“For the first time, the network is going to tell us about ourselves,” said Professor Chris Moran, Curtin deputy vice chancellor of research, noting that the network had to accommodate more than 56,000 students in five countries that each has their own goals in utilising the network for research and learning.

“I don’t think we normally ask ourselves what our intentions are, or how you elicit from this incredibly heterogeneous group of users what it is that they intend to do,” he continued.

“You need to resolve the conflicts where students, staff, collaborators, and co-creators may have different intent at different times in different places of the network. You need to see how that whole system changes, and how we redefine the network to provide the best consistency, at the best possible speed, for as many parties as possible.”

Extensive use of analytics is also enabling Cisco to test new methods for scanning encrypted data flows for threats without decrypting traffic in transit.

“We have to balance a permissive environment with protecting students,” Harrell explained. “If I have to decrypt traffic, I’m inherently treading on privacy. Analytics will give us the ability to look at an encrypted traffic flow and infer whether it’s potentially malicious without decrypting it. This is part of intent-based networking, but we need the CIBN to do that.”

The centre will also serve as a focal point for a range of academic efforts and partnerships, including undergraduate and graduate research programs as well as industry-focused outreach efforts.

Over time, Harrell said, the CIBN would help raise the baseline capability for technology students – helping integrate software-defined networking concepts into a range of curricula where hard networking skills would previously have been considered too esoteric.

“When you go to the next generation of networking, you need a next generation of network professionals that can come operate the network in a different way,” Harrell said. “In the SDN world, network experts need to be network programmers instead of network administrators.”

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