Network disaggregation shaping up as crucial to telecom industry’s future

Network disaggregation shaping up as crucial to telecom industry’s future

Network disaggregation is one of those topics that is hard to build an audience around. The appeal of it mostly is on the cost side. It’s not short and enticing like “5G”. And it means different things to different people, even within the same operators’ network department. Yet OFC sessions made clear how important this concept is becoming for operators, both telcos and webscale.

Post-OFC news reinforced this, as Nvidia announced on March 11 that it would pay $6.9B for Mellanox Technologies. Mellanox has been an advocate of open networking for years in forums like the OCP and ONF, pitching its portfolio as an “Open Ethernet approach to network disaggregation.” For anyone wondering if this approach had market appeal, the Nvidia deal may have tipped the scales.

AT&T, NTT among the big telcos making moves towards disaggregation

In the optical networks space, disaggregation generally refers to open line systems, where systems and transponders are decoupled. That allows for faster upgrades of transponders, and avoids vendor lock-in. AT&T is on board here, as Scott Mountford confirmed at Monday’s “Open Platform Summit”, saying “we’ve been pretty vocal these last few years about open optical networks”. That includes founding support for the Open ROADM MSA, which was featured in a demo at OFC involving AT&T, Orange, Fujitu, Ciena, and the University of Texas, Dallas.

More broadly, large operators and select vendors have been trying to promote a “white box ecosystem” where hardware can be decoupled (or disaggregated) from software. AT&T made a splash in December when it announced it would deploy white box routers at up to 60,000 towers over the next few years. The company will release as open source the software it is writing for the routers. A large operator like AT&T can make this early commitment, but most others are more cautious. At a 5G session on Monday, AT&T Kent McCammon noted that standards bodies like the ONF, Open Compute, and Linux Foundation are important because in order “to reduce costs we need to simplify operator requirements around commonalities”.
For Japan’s NTT, lowering network opex is a central goal of the white box shift. Akira Hirano from NTT discussed how white boxes can help operators lower opex through “zero touch functions”. The company cited its use of the Cassini white box as a success, because it automates L3 network configuration, requiring only 1 command. However, the NTT speaker noted that the application is only for data center interconnect, and that “for sure” this is not in use in long haul networks yet.

AT&T also underscored the gradual nature of change in telco fiber networks. They have been built over decades, have a range of different attached network equipment, and are subject to a variety of depreciation rates. AT&T’s Mountford also noted that “operational systems need development” in this area, in order to actually manage decoupled network elements. That is something the webscale sector is able to attack more easily, given their relatively simple networks.

Google and Microsoft full steam ahead

The biggest webscale providers spend billions per year on their networks. Most have embraced open networking from the start. Microsoft’s Mark Filer stated at the Summit that “open and disaggregated networks are already powering Microsoft’s cloud”. In making this happen, he emphasized the importance of a set of software tools built internally, “Microsoft SDN”, which includes a topology engine, zero touch configuration tools, data collection tools, and alerts & correlations.

Similarly, Google’s Eric Breverman emphasized software in his talk on “Optical Zero Touch Networking”. The goal of ZTN, Breverman explained, is essentially to “keep people from actually touching the network”. Humans make mistakes, and they are too costly to keep hiring at the same pace as traffic. Automatic network configuration is important. Google says it now supports intent-driven networking on 50% of “Google’s Production Optical Network”. OpenConfig is important here, as it allows working across multiple vendors much easier than with TL1 and SNMP.

Telcos need software skills

It’s no surprise that telecom operators are eager to lower the cost of growing & operating their network. Open platforms have the potential to contribute, and not just in optics. Building the right software tools to manage these platforms is crucial, though, and webscale providers are further along than telcos. As an analyst, I have to wonder whether telcos need to reach deeper into their pockets for R&D budgeting. For AT&T, one of the biggest telco spenders, it spent just 0.7% of revenues on R&D in 2018, down from 1.3% in 2014. Webscale R&D spending averages out to about 10% of revenues, and it shows.

Cover image: Shutterstock.

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