Insights from the latest research by Roy Chua, founder and principal at AvidThink
In recent weeks, our lives were transformed in how we communicate with our families and friends, in how we work, in how our children learn, and so on. Many of these changes directly impact the network. And although it is too early to determine the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the network, in general, and on the Communication Service Provider (CSP) networks, in particular, it is already clear that our predictions about network growth are no longer accurate. CSPs all over the world are reporting a substantial increase in network demand, way beyond their projections, because more people are homebound. Here are a few examples: Comcast revealed a 32% increase in network demand, AT&T reported an increase of 22% in traffic in its core network, which includes the business, home broadband and wireless usage, and BT said there was an increase as high as 30%-65% in their fixed network. Lucky for us, networks were built with enough redundant capacity for high-availability so they can support these fluctuations, while preserving service integrity. However, now it is clear that CSPs need to expand their network and accelerate their upgrade plans to meet the new demand.
Can the CSPs’ networks keep up with these changes?
How will CSPs keep up with this newly accelerated demand? As end-users, we expect our CSPs to fulfill their obligations and provide the high-quality service needed for streaming shows and video conferencing. To do this, CSPs need to increase their investments in the network and buy new, expensive gear to expand capacity. But on the flip side, we don’t want to pay more, even though we are consuming more. Simply put, CSPs are expected to square the circle – they need to expand their networks without expecting additional revenue.
While this is not a new concern for CSPs, COVID-19 has made it more critical and urgent.
Network Disaggregation that scales like Clouds
Roy Chua, founder and principal at AvidThink, has been tracking the networking market for many years. Last year, Roy published a research brief on the unique opportunities for Service-Providers in the Disaggregation of Networking. More recently, Roy published new research on how disaggregated networks can scale by adopting a cloud-native software architecture.
“A scalable cloud-based disaggregated networking architecture can be the golden solution for the CSPs to deal with exponential growth – it combines the low cost of the white boxes and merchant silicon market, with the high-scale and simple operation of the cloud-native software technologies.”
CSP financial challenges are growing
In his research, Roy covers the impact of COVID-19 on networks and how much more urgent the financial challenge has become for CSPs: “AvidThink and other analysts are already predicting an acceleration in 5G infrastructure build-out to keep up, along with lighting up of fiber assets in the transport and core networks to ferry the increased traffic.” But on the other hand, “overall growth in spending on telecommunications services (including streaming TV) was expected to be 0.9% in 2020.”
Could NFV address the network infrastructure and profitability challenge?
Reviewing the challenges, Roy examines whether NFV solutions, the first attempt at virtualizing network functions, can address these challenges. He finds that NFV technology was slow to evolve, with almost no standardizations, and is still based on Virtual Machines (VMs) which “make poor bedfellows for high-performance jitter-sensitive network functions…” So pure NFV solutions are not the answer.
Disaggregation with Cloud Architecture is the answer
Roy concludes that the winning solution would have to disaggregate the control and data planes: “We can envision a telco hardware platform that’s disaggregated and open, leveraging the best of breed for both control plane and data plane functions.”
It would also need to be built on cloud-native software that can scale to any size, fit anywhere in the CSP network, and run multiple services in parallel: “However, if this can be done intelligently, preserving a high degree of modularity, then it is possible to create a software architecture that can scale from access to aggregation to core, performing L3 functions, or even L4-7 functions.”
The potential benefits of such solutions to the CSPs are: “These hybrid disaggregated architectures that can achieve horizontal scaling could mean that a single architecture could scale from lower-speed access and edge routers, all the way to aggregation routers and even to core terabit/petabit routers. The streamlined and simplified platform could reduce operational expenses on top of significant hardware savings.”
Network Cloud – A cloud-native high-scale Disaggregated Router
DriveNets Network Cloud is a cloud-native disaggregated router that runs on a cluster of white boxes, where the control plane runs on standard x86 servers and the data plane on networking white boxes. The software is a cloud-native distributed OS made of micro-services and containers that can scale up to 768 Tbps and still operate as a single routing network entity.
In her blog last month on Running Networks and the Coronavirus, Inbar Lasser-Raab (CMO at DriveNets) wrote “At DriveNets, we certainly didn’t predict the Coronavirus catastrophe, but we did expect that networks will have to change, be more flexible, more adaptable and more economical to operate.”
CSPs couldn’t have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic or the resulting exponential growth in the network demand. However, this could be the perfect opportunity for them to rethink how they build their networks: making them more flexible, more agile, software-based, with a new economic model that can address their financial challenges. This is a milestone moment for CSPs and the time for them to create the network for the future.