Software-defined networking is — by its name — about using software on commodity hardware to control network functions.

But a Hewlett-Packard Co. official told a networking conference in Toronto on Friday that intelligence will still reside on switches and routers.

“At some point if it makes sense to optimize for cost, speed and performance we’ll bake SDN features into hardware, and then work on the next generation of stuff in the software and over time we’ll bake that into the hardware,” Sarwar Raza, director of HP’s advanced technology group,” told the conference at the University of Toronto.

“Hardware does not stop being important.”

The one-day symposium was sponsored by HP to bring its researchers together with those from the UofT’s department of electrical and computer engineering and exchange ideas.

SDN and wireless technologies were the focus of the day.

For example, Kyu-Han Kim, mobility research manager at HP Labs in California, talked about his group’s work on bringing location-based capabilities to Wi-Fi networks.

These services on smart phones using GPS technology are well-known. But enabling the same capabilities on indoor Wi-Fi networks is difficult because multipath interference makes it hard to pinpoint the location of a device.

Kim said existing systems need a prior-site survey, require special hardware or need an app on the end-user’s device and can have an error of up to 10 meters.

HP is working on a technology it dubs CUPID which calculates distance based on a direct signal from an access point and ignores reflected signals that distort the distance.

In tests CUPID can be accurate to 2 meters.

The technology isn’t near commercialization — HP still has to work on honing the system to distinguish between people on the first and second floor of a building among other problems.

But if it works, like cellular location services it could be used by retailers in malls to send coupons to customers walking past stores, send helpful maps to people in airports or audio commentary to people in museums standing in front of particular works of art.

Ashish Khisti, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in wireless networks at the university’s signals, multimedia and security laboratory, described work being done to improve the protocol stack in wireless networks to improve overall security and latency for multimedia applications.

Stephane Laroche of HP’s Montreal mobility painted a picture of the coming expansion of the 802.11ac version of Wi-Fi, which promises wireless speeds of up to 1.3 Gbps under ideal conditions. The first wave of products is just hitting the market using a draft version of the standard, while a second wave with the ability to send multiple streams to users will likely come out in 2015.

UofT’s Alberto Leon-Garcia talked about his group’s work to test the idea of a wireless carrier network that can automatically change to meet fluctuating demand.

Raza’s comments on SDN echoed those made earlier this month by Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers at the Interop New York conference.

Some industry analysts think that eventually software running on commodity servers can control all physical and virtual network functions, leaving switches and routes as dumb devices. HP and Cisco — who are huge networking manufacturers.

In fact, Raza said, some talk about the software-defined data centre, software defined infrastructure and “software-defined everything.”

But, he added, it is within the realm of possibility that an organization will be able to query a network infrastructure and, in effect say ‘I want to do this workload,’ and the network will reply ‘It can be done now in four hours and cost X, or during off-peak hours and it will cost Y.’

HP has ties to the university. Khisti said it has supported some of his work that related to wireless projects. Marc Seeman, HP Canada’s manager of pre-sales for networking products, said he contacted Khisiti about holding a joint meeting of researchers.

“Sometimes in Canada we don’t toot our horn enough,” Seeman said in an interview. “At other times we operate in our own silos. So this is a chance to collaborate.”

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