Last year, Cisco’s VNI report predicted that IP traffic would double in the next three years. A Heavy Reading survey that followed the report (see below) found that 76% of Communications Services Providers (CSPs) either expect a radical change to their network in the next three years, or were already considering making such changes.
Then, the Coronavirus came to town, and the bandwidth increase experienced by CSPs made it practically 2021.
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The Future of IP Networking – Time for Radical Change
As home networks turned overnight into corporate networks, demand for broadband communication services skyrocketed – with CSPs experiencing as much as a 60% increase in Internet traffic, according to research conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Taken together with telco edge evolution activities and the fact that 5G investments with initiatives such as O-RAN have already jumpstarted network change – it seems that the Heavy Reading survey results are more relevant today than six months ago. In fact, the survey’s findings may even already lag a year behind in their scope.
In light of the changes wrought by the pandemic, and the evolution of telco networks – it’s worth looking at what’s driving telecom providers to seek network changes, and what changes are they considering.
Drill-Down: Drivers of Change
It’s telling that nearly 80% of telecom providers surveyed by Heavy Reading before the pandemic clearly recognized a need for network change. After all, they understand that the architecture forming the backbone of the Internet has remained unchanged for nearly 30 years. Service providers infrastructures are still driven by monolithic IP routers from a handful of vendors who sell and support proprietary, closed systems. Software-defined networking (SDN) introduced new efficient architectures, and while it was adopted by hyperscalers in the cloud, the uptake by telecom providers has thus far been modest.
Yet understanding the need for change and being compelled to initiate it are two very different things. Today, with the pandemic still in full effect, there’s no further question. Demand is driving change.
Even before the pandemic, service providers were struggling to maintain pace with network traffic demands. Today, powered by unprecedented work-at-home bandwidth consumption, and a huge volume of OTT (Over-the-Top) streaming media and other business services, demand is only going to increase – especially with the move to 4K/8K, linear OTT TV, IP-into-broadcast substitution, and the transition to 5G.
To meet this demand, Heavy Reading found that providers saw
(in that order) as the drivers for network architectural changes.
Service providers chose disaggregated software-based networks
What change will reduce costs, increase scalability, and lower operational complexity? The vendor selection criteria for next-generation IP projects saw software-based solutions (52% of respondents) and disaggregation of hardware and software (40%) as the top two options. This speaks volumes about provider recognition of the need for radical change because these two options are the most disruptive on the list.
It is especially interesting that traditionally important criteria like sticking with the incumbent vendor ranked far down on the list. Providers clearly recognized pre-pandemic – as they do now – that best-in-class suppliers for each domain are preferable over traditional, monolithic solutions.
And white Box Routers
White box hardware as the underlying infrastructure for the disaggregated network was preferred by almost half of network operators surveyed by Heavy Reading. Based on high-scale, carrier-grade “merchant silicon” with high density port interfaces and low power per bit which are critical for core networks.
61% of companies surveyed ranked white boxes either “critical” or “important” to their IP networks plans and strategy.
Many service providers have been long supporters of white boxes and even tried developing white box-based solutions themselves. Most of them have come to the realization that the best way to pursue white box open routing is by using commercial solutions from software vendors who support multiple network operators.
As to when and where white boxes will be deployed, the survey found that 25% of providers have already deployed them in access networks and 21% at the network edge. However, it is expected that within 2 years white-boxes will be adopted by 50% of service providers in various network functions. Within three years, these numbers will be in the 60-80% of service providers. Interestingly, this adoption trend is reminiscent of how hyperscalers adopted white box-based infrastructure.
As a result of elevated pandemic-driven demand, CSPs may be more likely to move to white boxes and software-based networks – possibly even faster than the survey found. The move to white boxes already began with th5G networks and is expected to accelerate with the tightening of the relationships between the hyperscalers and CSPs.
High-scale disaggregated routers are here
Pre-Coronavirus, service providers were already considering network disaggregation to achieve cost-effective capacity scaling. The momentum towards disaggregation has been publicly endorsed by leading operators like AT&T, Telefonica, Rakuten Mobile and others. Partnerships like the ones between DriveNets and CSP networking system integrator KGPCo, or with white box manufacturers like UfiSpace, Delta and EdgeCore are helping accelerate the deployment of disaggregated networks at Tier-1 service providers worldwide.
The recent demonstration of a Distributed Disaggregated Chassis (DDC) model by DriveNets, UfiSpace and Credo at the Open Compute Project (OCP) Virtual Summit Experience helps to further move the industry towards disaggregation.
In the shadow of the pandemic, the adoption of open networking and the transition to white box routers will help CSPs offer the bandwidth, availability, and advanced services that massively impact profitability. The Heavy Reading survey, and the COVID-19 crisis, have demonstrated that change in telecom networks is not just coming…it’s already here.