3 Carrier Ethernet Trends Transforming the ICT Landscape
The evolution of Ethernet has been breathtaking for its scope, speed, and effect on the ICT industry. Created as a “connectionless” and “best effort” LAN technology, Ethernet was originally intended to connect computers to printers and servers down the hall. It quickly became a robust and scalable connectivity solution capable of linking systems across the globe with massive amounts of capacity. Ethernet has been a hallmark of the prowess of networking technology progress, particularly over the past decade as it has been recast as Carrier Ethernet, and is now offered as a set of services by the world’s largest service providers.
While the Internet has become ubiquitous and vital to our daily lives, Carrier Ethernet has become the go-to solution for enterprise connectivity. You can find proof of this in a variety of private networks, which are increasingly based on well-known MEF1-defined services such as E-Line, E-LAN, E-Tree, E-Access, and the newly defined E-Transit services. Internet-based connectivity has its place, but when corporate data assets migrate off the enterprise campus and into a data center (either private or public), chances are a Carrier Ethernet connection is used to guarantee a Service Level Agreement (SLA) that can assure business stays up and running 24/7. When revenue streams amounting to billions rely on the network being up, secure and reliable, enterprises are entrusting it with their very survival. The new reality is that losing connectivity means losing business.
Moving forward, Carrier Ethernet stands to benefit from several interrelated trends on the networking horizon. Below are the developments that will directly affect the state of Ethernet and the larger ICT industry.
Trend #1: The Cloud Still Permeates Enterprises
Wait, you might be thinking, Enterprises migrating their apps to the cloud has been happening for a while now. Why is this “new”? Well, the enterprise hunger for cloud-based compute and storage isn’t sated yet, and public cloud providers such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are rapidly deploying gigantic data centers to capture this opportunity, warehousing and serving up petabytes of data being generated from the Internet of Things and mined for revenue by businesses large and small.
As a result, the rapid adoption of cloud=based applications is having a significant and measurable impact on today’s networks, with video streams and the outsourcing of IT services into the cloud being the main contributors to this voracious and ongoing bandwidth growth. Carrier Ethernet has become the workhorse connectivity technology to access this hosted data in either a private or public cloud model. Given the need for data redundancy and the desire to house data in strategic locations, data center interconnect is a natural fit for Carrier Ethernet as well.
Why Carrier Ethernet? The reason is that although bandwidth demand is not new to service providers, the unpredictable nature of its growth and usage pattern is. Ethernet’s flexible and dynamic ability to deploy bandwidth when and where it is needed makes it a natural fit. Consumer-based applications account for most of this global bandwidth growth, with mobile access comprising a great deal of it.
The upcoming 5G mobile technology rollout will deliver even more capacity to end users who will be able to rely on the cell infrastructure for mobile as well as fixed access to the Internet, again, driving orders of magnitude more traffic to the cloud. Users (and hence traffic) in these networks will tend to move around, congregate in spots temporarily (for example stadiums or theaters during an event, apartment complexes during the evenings, and offices during the day) so the requirement for bandwidth will move with them, and the network needs to react quickly and seamlessly.
Trend #2: Agility as a Differentiator
Recall that basic Ethernet is inherently a multi-point technology routinely characterised as plug-and-play in that devices can be easily added to the network without a lot of configuration or hand-holding. With well-established mechanisms such as MAC address flooding and learning, Ethernet can automatically discover paths through the network to enable communication. With this high level of built-in intelligence and adaptability, Ethernet can be deployed in many physical topologies including mesh, partial mesh, ring, hub-and-spoke, or a mix of these. Because Ethernet networks can adapt to growth and change, these topologies can expand easily or change over time to adapt to varying demands.
In addition to flexibility in its physical topology, Ethernet provides flexibility in “logical” topology. This refers to how services are routed in the network. Traditionally, Ethernet networks were completely auto-learning, as mentioned above. This is still a valid premise in a campus environment.
However, enhancements have been made to Carrier Ethernet to allow for connection-oriented switching, in which paths are defined by identifying specific connections and then provisioning the route using technologies such as MPLS-TP. This arrangement allows deterministic path identification, letting service providers choose the path services take in the network to better manage latency or maximize the use of fiber and bandwidth, which becomes more relevant as network topologies grow.
Connection-oriented switching gives the network operator the ability to offer network security on par with circuit-based applications with the flexibility and robustness of packet switching. Combined with Carrier Ethernet’s carrier-class OAM tools, a network operator can define and monitor network performance and provide assured information technology infrastructures for critical missions.
The latest innovation comes in the form of Software Defined Networks (SDN), which take much of the control function (think path selection and protection functions) out of the realm of the individual Ethernet switch, and logically centralize them so intelligent control plane decisions can be made holistically with end-to-end efficiency in mind. Though this is done primarily for cost reduction through efficient use of hardware and software, a pleasant side effect is that it also adds a level of flexibility and manageability to the network that enhances the Carrier Ethernet value proposition in a critical network environment.
SDN adds a level of agility that service providers can use to quickly define, test, and roll out innovative services that combine connectivity services (e.g., MEF services) and other managed value-added services such as cost-optimized path selection, protection for multiple network failures, WAN optimization, dynamic bandwidth, and the like. These add new revenue streams for service providers, and eliminate some of the headaches enterprise IT managers would rather outsource as part of the migration to the cloud.
Today’s Ethernet provides standard interfaces from 10 Mb/s to 100 Gb/s with more on the way.2 Because Ethernet hardware is shipped in such large volumes, even 10 GbE connections are becoming competitively priced. So an operator can cost effectively deploy a 10 GbE port at the enterprise, but sell fractions of that capacity that can vary over time, as requested by the end user. Consumption-based pricing provides a significant advantage to both operator and end user.
Trend #3: Virtualization of Everything
As we’ve seen, the network becomes the critical link to applications and data that live in the cloud and are critical to the efficient functioning of businesses large and small. These network resources, or functions, are increasingly becoming virtualized and hosted in conventional compute servers in data centers. By this we mean software-based functions can be hosted on generic servers that are far more cost effective than the traditional, built-to-purpose appliances. This Network Function Virtualization (NFV) allows what are expensive, single-purpose solutions like firewalls, load-balancers, WAN accelerators, and encryption, to be far more flexible and cost-efficient. Housed in large data centers, a pool of such functions can be shared across a population of end users who share their licensing costs, and avoid the on-site maintenance otherwise required of similar on-premises devices.
To the operator, they allow additional up-sell opportunities via outsourced, managed services created at the end user’s behest. In the case of Carrier Ethernet, the NFV model allows critical parts of the network ecosystem to be divorced from the traditional router platform. Virtual router functions, for instance, can avoid the use of a full-fledged layer 3 network in applications like mobile backhaul, where only a fraction of the router’s features are ever used. And avoiding the cost of those expensive boxes at each and every cell-site is a distinct advantage in terms of CapEx and OpEx. Similarly, this flexibility allows enterprises to make significant cost savings, predominantly by reducing their reliance on one vendor for all aspects of the network environment.
We are already starting to witness such a trend in specific industry verticals. One example is in the utility space, where traditional applications like grid monitoring, sub-station control and tele-protection are encouraging network modernization efforts using newer Carrier Ethernet technology to replace their older, TDM-based predecessors.
As utilities plan for smart grid applications and legacy systems become obsolete, a prudent strategy is to systematically migrate to newer, packet-based systems. By adopting an Ethernet-based communication network infrastructure, enhanced by SDN and NFV elements such as packet-based synchronization, link protection, and dynamic bandwidth functions, utilities are now able to more cost effectively support their power generation and distribution assets without compromising on safety or performance of the electric grid. Other industries, like healthcare, finance, and heavy industry have experienced similar benefits, and it only portends well for the future of Ethernet as a connectivity service.
So we’ve seen that Ethernet has come a long way. With the advent of these new interrelated trends on the horizon, it only stands to benefit further as innovations in the cloud, software, and virtualization realms lead to new service offerings that create entire new markets for service providers and enterprises alike.
1. MEF: formerly known as Metro Ethernet Forum. See more at www.mef.net.
2. The concept of Flex-Ethernet has recently been introduced that allows for the Ethernet physical layer itself to adapt dynamically, making use of the entire capacity of whatever medium is in use and thus avoiding the long wait for new rates to make it thru the standards setting process.