United Airlines' Flight-Delaying Network Issues Would Be Fixed By SDN, VARs Say

Solution providers say United Airlines' networking issues that created a massive airline backup Wednesday could have been prevented through software-defined networking.

United said in a statement that "a router degraded network connectivity for various applications," which caused the grounding of all flights for nearly two hours nationwide Wednesday morning, affecting tens of thousands of travelers.

A United spokeswoman told CRN in an email that United couldn't provide specifics about the router or the vendor who provided the router that caused the issue.

[Related: United Airlines, NYSE Outages Reveal Poor Redundancy Architecture, Insufficient Testing]

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A Cisco spokesman would neither confirm nor deny that its routers were involved in the incident.

"Cisco has reached out to United Airlines and is ready to provide whatever product or service support required," said Cisco in an email to CRN. "Cisco's top priority is the satisfaction and support of our customers."

Solution providers agree that the router issue could have been prevented if the airline properly utilized software-defined networking. Simply adding more infrastructure hardware won't fix the issues airlines will have as the Internet of Things emerges, more devices become connected and big data is collected, they said.

"SDN is the reason why this is happening, because they're not deploying SDN, so they're still bound to buying network switches and configuring servers and all the back end -- it's just too much to handle," said Jamie Shepard, senior vice president of health-care and corporate strategy at Dallas-based Lumenate, who partners with Cisco and Brocade. "So at any time during the day, if people are booking fast online, and there's a lot of flights in the air simultaneously, then basically SDN can route that, and give those application requests the routing that [they need], then you're not going to have these failures."

Shepard said hardware-centric data centers cannot handle the workloads of Web-based applications, as more people book flights online; additional sensors are added to things like airplane engines, driving big data; and more personal devices are being taken on trips.

"It's not a vendor failure," said a top solution provider, who partners with Hewlett-Packard, Cisco and Juniper Networks. "People are looking to point the finger and say, 'Look, Cisco's -- or whoever's -- product took down United' -- it didn't. It's a matter of high demand, high data, the IoT pushing to a limited hardware infrastructure. So it's not who made the switch, the challenge is that it's not architectured properly."

The Federal Aviation Administration imposed a stop to all United grounded planes at around 8:30 a.m. Eastern time Wednesday and lifted the stop at 9:45 a.m.

"We fixed the router issue, which is enabling us to restore normal functions," said United in an email.

Solution providers say buying more hardware won't fix the problems that will continue to occur if airlines fail to better adopt SDN.

"When you throw hardware at this stuff, your adding more ports and overpopulating for these spikes. The problem is you spike so much and you have so much hardware, you're going to go down," said Shepard. "This is where software-defined will help -- it will balance it out, level it out, dictate what traffic gets the most priority and why."