CARRIER ETHERNET BUSINESS BRIEFING 2014: Five Carrier Ethernet trends to watch

25 February 2014 | Guy Matthews


Capacity examines some of the trends and issues that look likely to be driving the next wave of Carrier Ethernet adoption. How is Ethernet going to play a part in shaping the communications ecosystem of the future?

Carrier Ethernet hit a milestone in 2013. For the first time ever, the share of global bandwidth demand represented by Carrier Ethernet services has exceeded the sum total of all legacy telecom services.

The final endgame is still nowhere in sight, however. Research and analysis firms Frost & Sullivan, Vertical Systems and Infonetics are all predicting an Ethernet services market worth approximately $50 billion by 2015, several percentage points ahead of the present market position.

It is important to remember that Carrier Ethernet owes its growing popularity only in part to the background work of standards committees. There are wider factors across the communications industry spectrum that drive carriers and service providers to adopt Ethernet services, and to seek out its unique qualities to solve real-world business problems. Here we consider five of these drivers.

1. The converging worlds of IT and networking
Carrier wholesale divisions have not traditionally had much connection with the provisioning of computing power. They have provided little more than the basic pipes, while another more enterprise-focussed part of the operation has had responsibility for selling managed IT services.

But the era of everything-as-a-service has changed the game, and now carriers must be mindful that the gap between providing network services and providing IT resources is small – and shrinking.

“Looking at the convergence of IT and networks is new to us, as a team with a wholesale perspective,” says Steve Best, managing director, strategy, products and regulation with BT. “But the next phase of our cloud portfolio is very IT-focussed. It will be about providing customers with everything they need, over Ethernet.”

Carriers looking to ready themselves for a more converged world might start by adapting specific services to make them better suited to the delivery of computing services. Ultimately, they face the need to change their whole network to ensure that it can respond dynamically to the way IT services are bought and sold. The carrier mindset must move from one of relative isolation from other parts of the telco business to a more end-to-end and on-demand style of service provision.

It is in and around the data centre that the most conspicuous signs of this process can be seen today, according to Adam Janota, director of Global Networks with Equinix.

“Convergence of the network and IT is taking place in our data centres,” he says. “There are over 900 carrier networks linked to our facilities. They need a level playing field, somewhere they can connect to cloud and IT companies with their networks at super-high speed.”

Where Ethernet fits in: Ethernet is the obvious link between computing and networking, partly because the IT department is its heritage and also because in its carrier-class form it is well suited to scalability in network performance – from 10G to 100G and back again to 10G, as demand fluctuates.

Ethernet is both a driver of converging networks and IT, and an enabler too. It ensures that carriers have a broad range of bandwidth options for customers, depending on what they are consuming. And it helps to make the network both more intelligent and more responsive.

2. Virtualisation of network resources and the introduction of SDN capabilities to networks
Network resources are becoming software-based, allowing them to be hosted on generic servers in ways that threaten to be more effective and cost-efficient than traditional methods.

The software defined network (SDN) is a much-touted way for a network to be defined by the applications it powers, not by the physical infrastructure. Flexible, on-demand bandwidth, as well as low latency and high data protection levels, can be automatically requested under this model.

SDN also allows operators to scour the network for analytical information about usage patterns, so that they can respond to demand more effectively.

Network virtualisation and SDN will in future require network operators to implement a distributed computing and analysis management framework for network automation, says Ben Parker, principal technologist for network analytics specialist Guavus.

“Big Data analytics will play a key role in the new virtual ecosystem, essentially serving as the brains of the network and enabling data-driven dynamic work flow,” he says. “For example, using Big Data analytics, an operator can now ascertain the location of each virtual machine and determine the most optimal data centre and hardware for it to be instantiated, in context of the overall system performance, reliability, and cost designs.”

Carrier Ethernet has a central place in making all of this happen. But in a virtualised world, it should be seen more as a mechanism and less as the centrepiece to the solution, argues Matthew Finnie, CTO of European carrier Interoute.

“Particularly when we talk to people outside the regular telecoms industry, it’s virtualisation and SDN they want to talk about,” Finnie says. “Google doesn’t care what everything runs over. The Ethernet industry needs to change its outlook and realise that people don’t buy a 16mm spanner and then go looking for a 16mm nut. It’s the other way around.”

Where Ethernet fits in: Virtualisation started in the data centre, with virtual machines and servers. Its ethos has now moved to the network. Carrier Ethernet is the right underlying technology to support this transition, since it is reliable, robust and available. Ethernet has matured into a global, industrial-strength transport mechanism at a time when its core qualities are most needed.

“Carrier Ethernet allows critical parts of the network ecosystem to be divorced from the router platform,” says John Hawkins, senior product line manager with vendor Ciena.

“This means that firewalls, load balancers and routing engines can be more effectively centralised. The flexibility and choice this provides allows significant cost savings, predominantly by reducing reliance on one vendor for all aspects of the network environment.”

3. The need to migrate faster away from legacy standards like TDM
TDM-based standards were first developed when Queen Victoria was on the throne, and still persist in a somewhat evolved form today. TDM-based services were, for generations, the standard technology used to drive business network services.

“Traditionally, operators have relied on networks to synchronise critical applications that depend on accurate time and frequency information,” says Ciena’s Hawkins. “Traditional TDM-based networks provided the distinct advantage that all connection and redistribution points, as well as communication endpoints, could rely on the network’s common awareness of time and frequency.”

There were initial concerns about how this process would be replicated on Carrier Ethernet, but such worries are now largely a thing of the past. The advent of Carrier Ethernet saw both technologies run in tandem for a time, but the latter is becoming the default choice worldwide.

There are still plenty of parts of the world where TDM still predominates, however, necessitating that migration to Ethernet be prioritised before such places become digitally dispossessed.

“There’s a lot of TDM in Africa, Hong Kong, Eastern Europe and South America,” says Equinix’s Janota. “There’s been less telecoms market competition in these places of the sort that might drive change.”

Where Ethernet fits in: Carrier Ethernet’s popularity against alternatives like TDM will grow, as the world inches towards a network-as-a-service model and the adoption of network solutions with flexible, scalable and high-powered bandwidth starts to become a priority. The increasing popularity of Carrier Ethernet will be felt across vertical sectors, encouraging the adoption of other next-generation technologies in its wake.

4. Rapid growth in data consumption, particularly in emerging markets
Rising volumes of data traffic are creating issues for carriers and service providers everywhere, particularly in emerging markets, where enterprises are looking for wider global reach and consumers are now widely able to afford the sort of smart devices that generate data in vast quantities.

Scott Bender, marketing communications manager with US-based network operator Masergy, says the company is expanding to many new parts of the world to help service providers meet just this sort of demand.

“We have PoPs in Brazil, Mexico and China now,” he says. “Scale is kicking in and we are expanding out backbone capacity in these markets.”

All this new traffic needs to be managed, and these days that means having the means to differentiate between traffic where small delays between sending and receiving are acceptable, and other situations – video conferencing being one example – where it is not. The choice for carriers is either to build much bigger networks, or to adopt a high-bandwidth, packet-based solution that allows for reasonable quality-of-service assurance.

Ethernet looks like the solution, especially with growth in data levels showing every sign of accelerating, says Adam Janota of Equinix.
“Just look at the plans of people like Akamai,” Janota says. “In the past two years alone, mankind has generated more data than all the other data generated since the dawn of mankind. The world has 1.3 billion smartphones. The Rolling Stones performance in Hyde Park in 1969 generated something like 2MB of data. The corresponding performance in 2013 saw millions of gigabytes of data flooding the airwaves.”

Where Ethernet fits in: We are still far from any kind of data growth ceiling. In the unwired world, Ethernet deployed to the wireless antenna is one of the answers, and it is hard to justify any alternative. There is no real alternative to Ethernet. It also facilitates the interconnection of different networks – wired and unwired – greatly simplifying the global to-and-fro of data.

“I spent time in Singapore recently, and talked to service providers from all over south east Asia,” declares Henry Bohannon, senior director and head of Ethernet product management with Tata Communications. “Ethernet is definitely helping the interplay between ‘emerging’ and ‘global’. In some cases these emerging countries are skipping a generation of technology altogether and moving straight for newer standards.”

5. The search for cost-effective solutions to the mobile backhaul challenge
As the drive to deploy 4G networks grows, mobile operators are more focussed than ever on the cost, efficiency and performance of transport backhaul. Mobile backhaul networks can represent about a third of an operator’s overall costs, and LTE does not look likely to reduce that. In fact, it makes the capex and opex challenge of running a wireless network just that little bit heavier.

In today’s mobile backhaul networks there will probably be a variety of end points to factor in – macro cells, as well as one or more types of small cell. Small cell deployment solves the challenge of making access as widely available as possible, but introduces scalability issues to the backhaul task.

The most workable solution to these issues is a packet-based transport backhaul technology, such as Carrier Ethernet. Such a solution works by going beyond the immediate technical requirements and by reducing complexity, and therefore the total cost.

Where Ethernet fits in: Carrier Ethernet is coming to be seen as the most cost-effective solution in meeting current and future mobile backhaul difficulties. It is also the optimal solution for working small cells into the network, according to BT’s Steve Best.

“We’re working on small-cell access, and how Ethernet can play a role in synchronising all sorts of different sites,” he says. “Rolling Ethernet out to all locations on a network is going to be crucial to get value out of 4G investment.”