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Humans of SCinet: Q&A with SC20 Routing Volunteer Debbie Fligor

humans of scinet

debbie fligorDebbie Fligor, lead network engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is this year’s co-chair of the SCinet routing team. In 2015, Debbie was one of five women selected to participate in the pilot of the NSF-funded Women in IT Networking at SC (WINS) program, now in its sixth year. Debbie’s volunteer experience has taken her from serving as a member of the routing team from 2015-2018 to co-leading the routing team since 2019.

  • Years as a SCinet Volunteer: 6
  • SCinet Team: Routing
  • Which superhero power would you possess? The ability to answer questions like this.

How would you explain SCinet and what you do as a SCinet volunteer to a family member or friend?

SCinet is a very fast network that is connected to many places around the world at high speeds. Companies and researchers connect to it so they can demonstrate how their new products support high-speed, long-distance networks, or enhance researchers’ ability to move data related to their research. SCinet also can provide opportunities for researchers to test new ideas and protocols at a scale that they don’t normally have access to at their home institutions. I help design the network and get it built within the three weeks we have to put it all together.

What was your path to start volunteering with SCinet? What keeps you coming back as a SCinet volunteer each year?

I first heard about SCinet from network engineers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, which is a unit on my campus. It always sounded interesting, but initially the timing didn’t work out for me and I couldn’t go. A few years later when my children were older and travel was easier, SCinet was so popular that getting on the routing team wasn’t easy. For SC14, I was all set to join—I had a spot on the team and a commitment from my boss to pay my travel costs—when state budget cuts suddenly left my home institution without the money to send me. I finally made it to SC15 as a WINS participant. With WINS covering the travel costs, my boss could support me with a flexible work schedule to accommodate my day-job responsibilities and travel to Austin, TX, to help set up and operate SCinet.

What keeps me coming back to SCinet is a combination of the people and the experience. Working with so many talented people who are all smart and passionate about getting the network built and working—and pulling it off in the alloted time—is a really unique experience. I also get to work with equipment that is at an entirely different scale than what I do with my day job. Now as a SCinet team lead, I get to help design the network as well. All of that together is a lot of fun and gives me many chances to learn new things that I can bring back to my university.

Tell us about your SCinet team this year and what you are responsible for.

This year I am co-lead of the routing team with Nathan Miller from the U.S. Department of Energy’s ESnet. We are responsible for coming up with the network design at the convention center and integrating it with the designs of other SCinet teams, including wireless, edge, and the wide area network teams. This involves many things: picking technologies that we want to try, reaching out to contributors to engage with them, and getting contributors to help by loaning equipment for the network. It also involves recruiting team members and engaging with them to make sure they are in sync with the design and are able to help with early testing of ideas in the lab. We also make diagrams of the network design, inventory the permanent equipment like the patch panels and management switches, come up with the list of things we need to purchase to support our part of the network, and generate the final list of equipment we need from contributors.

Once onsite, we will inventory the received equipment, make the plan for getting it racked and connected, coordinate the team in getting all of the network installed and up, oversee the migration from the staging area to the show floor, make sure support tickets are handled, check that team members actually eat dinner and take breaks, and plan social events for the group.

We’re all seeing and feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our world. Despite the unprecedented challenges, what are you and your team most excited about for SC20? How are you keeping your team engaged in the planning process for SC20?

I think our team is most excited to have a solid plan to deploy Ethernet VPN, or EVPN, technology in the network, after a few years of planning and testing. EVPN is a modern way to connect two or more separate Layer 2 sections of the network together so that they work as one logical network. In the past, SCinet connected Layer 2 sections of the network together directly, by configuring that network on every device in between the places it needs to go. While this method worked, it limited how redundant paths could be built and involved more risk of network loops, which could negatively impact all of SCinet. With the new EVPN technology, the logical network is tunneled across the devices in the middle with a protocol like VXLAN. If everything works correctly, then engineers just define the network at the edges where it is needed, and the tunnels are generated automatically. This is really helpful for SCinet because we facilitate a lot of connections for researchers—from their booths to other booths in the SC exhibit hall, to wide area circuits, or to both. Being able to make those interconnects by “just” defining the network in those locations, letting EVPN and VXLAN make the interconnects, will make it easier and faster to deploy those network connections.

This achievement has been a few years in the making. Earlier iterations attempted to use MPLS as the underlying protocol, and we had issues getting everything tested and talking to each other in the time we had available for network staging and setup before the show had to go live. More recently when we tried to use VXLAN, we ran into similar timing issues and contributor interoperability issues. (There are two ways to do VXLAN, and not all contributors picked the same way!) For SC19 we tried something new, which was setting up a virtual lab so that we could do interoperability testing and try to get things working before we went onsite. We made more progress, but VXLAN is complex and we didn’t get our orchestration platform talking to all the contributors’ devices before we needed to start making final implementation plans. This year for SC20, we spun up the virtual lab sooner and updated the contributor images. We believe this will allow us to get orchestration and VXLAN interoperability going in time to be ready to actually use EVPN on this year’s network.

Working in that virtual lab to build a network model of what we want to use onsite this year is one of the key ways we are keeping the team engaged. With technology like this, our team members can now participate remotely even during COVID-19.

In addition to volunteering with SCinet, what do you do for fun?

Many different things! Some of them include Tae Kwon Do (with classes on Zoom during shelter-in-place), knitting, drumming, and video games. I have a lot of flowers on my Animal Crossing island.

Learn more about SCinet and Women in IT Networking at SC (WINS).

Amber Rasche, SC20 Communications, SCinet Liaison

Amber Rasche is a technical writer with N-Wave, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s enterprise network. In 2016 she had her first SCinet volunteer experience as a participant in the NSF-funded Women in IT Networking at SC (WINS) program. SC20 marks her fourth year volunteering with the SCinet communications team.

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