NTT Communications: resilient thinking

01 June 2011 |


Japan’s vulnerability to natural disasters poses a real and apparent threat to the nation’s connectivity. Alex Hawkes examines how NTT Communications’ IP operations are prepared for disaster.

On March 11 2011, the most powerful earthquake in Japan’s history triggered a tsunami which caused widespread devastation across the north east of the country. Leaving an estimated 25,000 people dead or missing, the natural disaster again reiterated the nation’s longstanding struggle to protect its citizens and infrastructure from its volatile surroundings.

This constant threat of natural disaster remains very much on the minds of the region’s carriers. As one of the largest ISPs in Asia, NTT Communications faces an uphill task to protect its Tier 1 IP backbone, which offers services in 26 cities in 15 countries and regions across the globe.

“We know that natural disasters occur in Japan and as the country’s leading carrier, we have to maintain services,” says Nick Wakai, VP for IP business of global business division at NTT Communications. “If you consider that each individual submarine cable ranges between 15mm to 50mm in diameter, then domestic connections are likely to be affected or disturbed in the event of a natural disaster. This is why we strongly believe in route diversity and use a total of five systems to connect Japan.”

The company belongs to the major Japanese telecoms service provider NTT Group, which also has two domestic fixed-line operators, NTT East and NTT West, as well as the mobile operator NTT Docomo and system integrator NTT Data. In the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, NTT East’s fixed-line operations were severely disrupted, with approximately 1.5 million circuits in its telephone subscriber lines, ISN and FLET’s Hikari (FTTH) services experiencing equipment failure. Rolling blackouts swept across affected areas wiping out commercial power supplies. NTT Communications operations, however, remained only briefly and partially affected.

“On the first day of the earthquake there was significantly reduced connectivity to the US, but by the second and third day we had begun to recover,” says Wakai.

Prepared for disaster

NTT Communications was formed just under 12 years ago, as the NTT Group looked to extend its services globally. As the company has continued to grow its capacity and global reach, the need to diversify its routes and earthquake-proof its infrastructure has grown ever more paramount. From landing stations through to switching equipment, every inch of NTT Communications infrastructure is examined by an in-house disaster preparedness team.

The company’s disaster preparedness policy adheres to three principals: to establish a strong network against disaster; to maintain critical communications if disaster strikes; and to restore a network connection as quickly as possible.

Telecommunications links are an absolute vital piece of any country’s recovery efforts, and such a policy bears this responsibility gravely in mind.

“With fixed-line telephony, prioritizing rescue calls using switching technology is relatively straightforward. Doing the same for IP – particularly VoIP – is far more complicated,” says Wakai. “We have been looking into ways of differentiating our IP packages – reviewing which routes to take during testing market conditions.”

Trans-Pacific developments

Monitoring the development of subsea cable systems in the region has been a key task for Wakai as the company looks to build on its route diversity. NTT Communications operates a dedicated cable linking the US and Japan called PC-1 which was launched in 1999. This

21,000km fibre-optic ring network claims to deliver the lowest latency network across the Pacific and provides the foundations for the company’s internet backbone.

Building on this, NTT Communications has added capacity at almost every possible opportunity – utilising the launch of any new build systems in the region as and when they arrive. Many of these cables have been launched by an increasing number of consortiums, with the most notable recent addition being the $300 million Unity cable which went live last year following the collaboration between Google, Bharti airtel, Global Transit, KDDI, Pacnet and SingTel.

“Every time a cable is ready, we speak to the owners and look at ways to add capacity,” says Wakai. “So many Asian countries are dependent on the Pacific Ocean for IP transit.”

This strategy of tapping into as many widespread routes as possible proved invaluable following the events in March. The PC-1 North and West cables incurred faults as a result of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, with repair work on PC-1 North due to be completed by the end of May and repair work on PC-1 West still ongoing and scheduled for completion in late June.

Due to these faults, NTT Communications configured IP traffic to switch to the Unity cable system, with 10G X 4 capacity activated on this cable just a few days after the disaster. “Building good and cooperative relationships with cable owners and carriers is also key in making this happen,” says Wakai.

Once the cable repair process is complete, Wakai has targeted upgrading trans-Pacific capacity for internet backbone, in order to keep up with the region’s phenomenal thirst for the internet and in particular the huge demand for mobile data. With a firm reputation as technological pioneers, the Japanese market has experienced huge growth in VoIP and triple play services as well as experiencing a strong adoption in fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) services. According to ITU, Japan’s internet users have soared from 47,080,000 in 2003 to 99,143,700 in June 2010, accounting for 78.2% of the population.

While Wakai admits this fact has NTT Communications trying to keep up with Japan’s fast pace of internet adoption, he also highlights the phenomenal growth going on in nearby China: “The nation has such vast potential. If the same level of technology in Japan was applied on the same scale in China, it would be insane,” says Wakai. “They are growing more and more each day and that growth could change the IP world.”

A secure future

Wakai’s security concerns extend beyond the physical threat of natural disaster. Network security has become a growing focus of NTT Communications’ business, and the company has been developing new solutions in-house to match the modern market needs.

The company has a Security Operation Centre (SOC) in Japan, which began offering a managed security service called Biz Security Global Management as of last October. The service, which primarily targets Japanese enterprises operating global businesses, provides real-time global protection 24/7 with any incidents reported on a dedicated portal.

“The more route diversity and capacity you have, the more security you need,” says Wakai. “We want to become the network security experts that other countries come to for help.”

key facts

History: NTT Communications was formed in July 1999 and became the first commercial provider in Japan to deliver a global IPv6 network. By 2002, NTT Communications had expanded its IPv6 services worldwide and by 2004 had also introduced its IPv6/4 Dual Stack Service around the globe. It provides global IP backbone services between Japan and US capable of reaching 490Gbps.

Ownership: NTT Communications is the wholly-owned subsidiary of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation.

CEO: Akira Arima

Customers: Major ISPs and content providers worldwide use NTT Communications’ Global IP Network.

Services: NTT Communications provides a range of global networks, management solutions and IT services. It provides a Tier 1 IP backbone reaching more than 150 countries in partnership with major internet service providers, and secure data centres in Asia, North America and Europe. Its network is designed to be fully redundant using multiple cable structure and forming triangular structures. The company has support sites located in 74 cities in 29 countries around the world.