NASA’s Keith Bluestein keeps agency networks humming with SD-WAN technology.

Jul 26 2019

Agencies Turn to SD-WAN to Modernize Wide Area Networks

NASA, USDA and FEMA are bolstering their networks with new technology.

If any agency knows how to communicate over long distances, it’s NASA. When transmitting high-resolution images and data 142 million miles from the red planet is part of the mission, connecting terrestrial offices should be a no-brainer. But even Earth’s premier space agency faces challenges modernizing its network.

NASA has 10 major global centers as well as several other remote offices, says Keith Bluestein, associate CIO for enterprise service and integration. The way that NASA connects those sites has changed significantly in the 61 years since the agency was founded.

For many years, places like the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama communicated via dedicated switched circuits. But managing multiple dedicated lines was costly and inefficient, says Bluestein.

“Over the past decade or so, it became obvious we needed to come up with a more common infrastructure,” he says. “We’ve been working aggressively to develop a wide area network that operates over a very high-bandwidth optical backbone, with LAN circuits in peripheral offices running off of that.”

By consolidating its broadband pipes into a single WAN, NASA can lower costs and utilize resources more efficiently while providing much-needed redundancy. As the agency launches more near-Earth sensors to measure the planet’s changing environment, its bandwidth needs should explode, says Bluestein.


“These sensors are going to be pumping down gobs and gobs of data,” he notes. “Over the next five years, our bandwidth requirements will go up exponentially. So we’re looking at growing bandwidth by adopting virtual technology at the endpoints.”

Agencies across government are collecting more data, from more sources, than ever before — likely, from employees who aren’t located in one central office. Strong connectivity is essential in today’s government, and agencies are turning to a variety of methods — from WANs to software-defined WANs — to keep communications going.

NASA, for example, is testing SD-WANs in two of its global centers, using products from the federally approved suppliers list (which includes Citrix and Juniper Networks) and hopes to make the technology standard across the agency over the next few years.

SD-WAN technology, still in its early phases in the federal sector, would allow the agency to provision network resources as they are needed, in a more secure way than traditional networks.

“If you were setting up a physical network, you’d buy a router or switch, a bunch of cable, receivers, transceivers and so on, and then integrate them,” Bluestein says. “With SD-WAN, you can provision that in a matter of minutes. Virtualization gives us the scalability and flexibility to move forward.”

Maintaining ultrafast reliable networks is critical to NASA’s core mission. “With a launch, the acceptable lag is measured in milliseconds,” he says. “There is no tolerance for delays.”

Keith Bluestein, Associate CIO for Enterprise Service and Integration, NASA
We’re looking at growing bandwidth by adopting virtual technology at the endpoints.”

Keith Bluestein Associate CIO for Enterprise Service and Integration, NASA

WANs Go Virtual and Give Agencies More Network Control 

Traditionally, organizations have operated WANs over multiprotocol label-switching lines leased from major telecoms, says Bob Laliberte, practice director and senior analyst for Enterprise Strategy Group. To ensure high availability, many organizations lease two lines, reserving one for use if the first line fails.

Some enterprises are evolving toward SD-WAN, which can run over a standard broadband connection and use 4G wireless as backup. It’s a more efficient use of bandwidth that saves money and gives organizations more control over their networks, he adds. SD-WAN can complement or replace WAN.

“We’re seeing organizations adopt technologies like SD-WAN that allow them to connect directly to the cloud without having to pass through the data center,” he says. “That frees up a lot of bandwidth they can use for other applications.”

But the transition from WANs running over MPLS to SD-WAN doesn’t happen overnight. Three-year telecom contracts need to run their course; routers and switches must be updated. Agencies optimize existing connections in the meantime.

The Agriculture Department’s 3,000-plus locations are linked by a traditional but enhanced WAN, says Frank Chad Hoeppel, acting associate CIO for the USDA’s Client Experience Center. The agency uses WAN optimization technology from Riverbed Technology to cache data locally, improving network performance and ensuring quality of service.

“The Riverbed WAN optimizer has reduced our HTTP and SSL traffic by 20 to 90 percent,” he says. “This enables us to reduce bandwidth consumption and latency, boost productivity and improve the user experience.”

Maintaining fast, reliable connections with regional offices is critical to USDA, he adds, especially as the agency expands its use of Voice over IP, collaboration and office automation apps.

“As mission areas and offices centralize data and modernize mission-critical applications, the need for robust, reliable and high-bandwidth connectivity continues to grow,” he says. “The availability of VoIP, collaboration and automation solutions is imperative to our day-to-day activities.”

The agency is replacing its current WAN connectivity provider with a new enterprise network service via GSA’s Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions program. And it’s taking a close look at SD-WAN, says Hoeppel: “Delivering new technology across a large enterprise network involves a significant change management effort.”

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out how DOD and the Energy Department use SDN to create smooth connections across networks.

SD-WAN Would Offer FEMA More Network Security 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency operates under adverse conditions, relying on everything from landlines and mobile phones to emergency radios, providing as much redundancy as it can manage, says CTO Ted Okada.

“We’re always thinking, ‘What’s our backup to the backup?’” he says. “How do we ensure that we’re not limited by the failure of cellular, fiber-optic or landline networks?”

FEMA’s ten regional centers and multiple subsidiary offices are connected via the Department of Homeland Security’s OneNet backbone, operated by Verizon and AT&T. DHS is looking to modernize its network and weighing whether to continue using existing leased lines or adopt virtualization at the endpoints via SD-WAN.

At FEMA, security and privacy are huge priorities, adds Okada. A software-defined perimeter would make it easier to microsegment each network, allowing access only to verified applications, devices and users.

“Every federal agency is trying to adopt industry best practices,” he says. “That means we’re all working toward getting to a zero-trust network. Software-defined networks will help get us closer to the concept of zero trust.”

Photography by Edgar Artiga

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