5G, Cloud and the New-Provider Edge: A Routing Tsunami

eWEEK DATA POINTS ANALYSIS RESOURCE PAGE: The way that service providers deliver Internet and network connectivity to people, companies and devices is due for a major shake-up. Dean Bogdanovic of Volta Networks explains what will drive major changes at the network edge.


Key IT trends that include the migration to 5G, the emergence of IoT and smart cities and new routing and management architectures are changing the volume and nature of traffic on networks. Service providers now face the daunting task of building and operating cost-effective networks that can scale to the demands of hyper-connected consumers and businesses. In fact, business customers represent the major new market for services like IoT, connected cars and eHealth.

(For the record: A smart city is a municipality that uses information and communication technologies (ICT) to increase operational efficiency, share information with the public and improve both the quality of government services and citizen welfare.)

All of these are applications that don’t tolerate delay, so we refer to them as low-latency applications.

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Routers are the critical element in delivering any IP service, from internet access to VPNs. If this new generation of low-latency services is to be successful, routing must move much closer to the customer and as close to the edge as possible. This means we must shift from routing in hundreds of major points-of-presence (PoPs) to potentially thousands of central offices or even tens of thousands cell sites. 

As a result, we will see a significant increase in the overall number of network locations that require routing.

This eWEEK Data Points article, based on industry information from Dean Bogdanovic, founder and CEO of Volta Networks, identifies five trends forcing technology shifts in which services are delivered at the network edge.

Data Point No. 1: 5G and the IoT will add billions of connected devices to networks

5G will bring a significant leap forward in capacity and performance over 4G and launch us into the age of everything-connected IoT. Industry experts predict that 5G will enable advancements in a range of areas, including connected cars, virtual reality, eHealth, automated factories, emergency communications and more. 5G will be a key factor in allowing millions–even billions–of devices to be connected simultaneously, even in highly populated areas, enabling the development of smart cities.

According to analysts at DBS Group Research, there are expected to be 125 billion IoT devices connected by 2030, up from 11 billion last year. With IoT devices expected to reach the billions, this will create significant new demands on service provider networks.

What this represents is a shift in service providers sources of revenue. They must go beyond focusing on connecting people paying to connect their devices, to now focus on businesses paying to connect to billions of things–sensors, monitoring points and cars. That’s why there is such a high interest in new technologies for the edge.

Data Point No. 2: Growth of video, cloud and other application traffic

Video usage continues to grow at a rapid rate. According to the Cisco Visual Networking Index, IP video traffic will account for 82 percent of global Internet traffic by 2022. People continue to watch more video and also higher quality video–both of which require more network capacity. Netflix alone consumes 15 percent of global internet traffic, according to the Global Internet Phenomena Report by Sandvine. 

The cloud also continues to experience rapid growth, as companies of all sizes move their data and information from on-premise to cloud providers such as AWS and Azure. According to Gartner forecasts, the worldwide public cloud services market is projected to grow 17.3 percent in 2019 to total $206.2 billion.

Data Point No. 3: New service edge designs

Three new design innovations are emerging in order to change and improve the network edge:

  • Multi-access edge computing (MEC) moves the computing of traffic and services from a centralized cloud to the edge of the network and closer to the customer. Instead of sending all data to a cloud for processing, the network edge analyzes, processes and stores the data.
  • Network slicing is a specific form of virtualization that allows multiple logical networks to run on top of a shared physical network infrastructure. The key benefit of network slicing is that it provides an end-to-end virtual networkencompassing not just networking but compute and storage functions, too.
  • Cross-Haul, the fusion of fronthaul and backhaul into an integrated 5G Transport Network, acts as a bus/transport network connecting Radio Heads (RH) to Base-Band Units (BBUs) which can be virtualized and hosted in data centers. Once virtualized, base-station functions can be flexibly distributed and moved across data centers, providing another degree of freedom for load balancing.

Data Point No. 4: Disaggregation of routing control and the data plane

These new network designs at the edge require rethinking how they can be more cost-effectively built and operated since it is more than just “aggregate and forward.” As network operators consider new investments, networking–particularly routing–is still dominated by proprietary hardware and software options.

To deliver more capacity, network managers are forced to scale up by using larger and more expensive chassis routers. But this approach is too expensive; the high price per port is a problem when revenue per bit is going down and the traffic volume is going up. Moreover, the size of these devices often means that they are pushed deeper into the network so they can aggregate more traffic, which works against reducing latency.

The cost of the data plane will be addressed by open networking and white box switches built on merchant switching silicon. The chips used significantly reduce the cost per port, and organizations are free to use the OS they prefer, much like servers in IT. In addition, for the control plane a new generation of virtualization, based on containers, microservices and based in the cloud, can encapsulate tasks into higher level abstractions, improving the granularity of control and further reducing costs.

Data Point No. 5: The need for open, automated management

Networks are still managed the same way that they were a decade ago–in a device-specific manner. Routers, switches, transport and other equipment from each vendor are configured and managed through the command line interface (CLI). This can be enhanced to a degree with proprietary vendor NMS systems or DevOps tools such as Chef, Puppet or Ansible. However, these are really best suited to large-scale configuration and not to ongoing service management. Fundamentally, CLI is an interface for humans not suited to automation.

Operations teams will need new approaches to enable network automation, because the device-specific approach will not be feasible as customer usage on the edge becomes more dynamic in terms of bandwidth demands and end points. The sheer volume of locations with routing makes the old model uneconomical. Organizations will turn to an open, automated approach to network management that provides a holistic view of services and not just the devices. The goal is to create a service and then provide the network resources to execute it using industry-standard automation via an open API to an operator’s management, administration and network orchestration (MANO) system. Service model approaches such as YANG coupled with NETCONF are open standards that can be used globally for service-oriented management. Because this model is API-based, automation can be realized.

Just as both the compute and storage markets were disaggregated and virtualized a decade ago, cloud-based open networking is giving network operators a new approach to routing, management and design at the service edge. Those who embrace and adjust to these changes early could have a significant advantage over competitors in terms of cost, scale and service delivery compared to those locked into the proprietary, box-specific way of building networks.

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