This article was published in Digitalisation World on July 6, 2020. You can read the original article here
People are consuming more and more data over Internet connections, from online TV to 5G applications. There’s an expectation on network operators to deliver all of this traffic, but we don’t want to pay any more than we already do for our broadband connections. Consequently, the business of delivering Internet services is getting trickier to navigate. Something has to change and fortunately, it is about to.
Carriers are implementing the biggest technology shift since the arrival of the Internet – cutting at least half of the cost off their network procurement and operations. They refer to this shift as network disaggregation, which in simple terms means buying their network software separately from their hardware.
In the past, the only way to deliver the levels of throughput required by the Internet was to build the routing systems using custom silicon and optimise the software around it. That’s why, in high-scale networking, software and hardware have always been intrinsically linked.
So, what’s changed? With the arrival of merchant silicon, silicon vendors now have the equivalent capabilities on their high-volume, low-cost networking chips that the traditional routing system vendors used to have in their customised systems. Merchant silicon is being used to build a new category of powerful low-cost ‘bare-metal’ switches, often constructed on the same outsourced assembly lines that manufacture the traditional router systems. These switches are a fraction of the cost of conventional telco routers, but just as powerful.
This is where a host of new companies are entering the market. They provide routing software that turns these bare-metal switches into IP/MPLS carrier routers, often specialising in different areas of the network, such as broadband access, edge and core. The approach that most of these new software providers are taking is very similar to those used by the massive cloud-IT giants. Their software runs in a container on a Linux operating system on the switch and can be deployed with zero touch provisioning. It offers carriers the potential to turn their operations into something that resembles one of the ‘Internet-native’ companies, rather than a traditional telco.
Reducing costs is one thing, but Internet service providers also have the opportunity to mix and match hardware and software vendors, which is a real bonus. This makes it easier to upgrade the capacity of any dimension of the system without throwing away the existing infrastructure and will also accelerate innovation for new services.
Cloud infrastructure, mostly built with x86 servers, also comes with network cards based on this same merchant silicon. In fact, many telcos are using x86 servers to build out capacity for NFV (Network Functions Virtualization). So, can they just use the same infrastructure for their network services?
There are network topology and latency reasons why they might not want to send massive amounts of traffic in and out of centralised data centers, but that aside there is no reason they can’t run the routing software on x86 servers. It’s actually a good approach for small numbers of subscribers or for niche services with complex forwarding chains such as firewall functions (where you might run out of chip resources on a bare metal switch). One problem is that it doesn’t scale as well for high volumes of standardised services, terminating millions of subscribers. In those environments, x86 servers can cost significantly more per port than bare-metal switches, especially for high speed ports at 100G and above.
These disaggregated network systems can replace many functions within a telco network, from core and edge routers to Border Network Gateways. And, along with a cloud-IT toolset to operate the networks, disaggregated systems are a fundamental part of the way telecoms operators are set to transform their operations to match the agility, simplicity and cost-levels of cloud-IT infrastructure.
Consumers can now watch online video streams without feeling guilty about the amount of bandwidth being consumed from our telco, in the knowledge that they have a new toolset to expand their network capacity at lower cost. It turns out that the future of the Internet is all about pulling the network to pieces.