Eliminating Network Complexity Is a Complex Task

Carl Weinschenk

Just about everything about the telecommunications and enterprise networking industries is in the throes of great change. Planners are dealing with such things as radical shifts in what networks are being used for and the transition from wired as the dominant physical connection to a more even mix of wired and wireless connectivity.

That change goes hand in hand with extreme shifts in the traffic models. The explosion of wireless has significant ramifications. Corporate data is moving far beyond the firewall – to a telecommuter’s home, for instance – and must be secured and managed over this larger footprint.

The vendor community is making billion-dollar bets on which mousetraps will work best in these rapidly morphing conditions. The basic idea is that wired and wireless networks must move from an inefficient structure of parallel silos that require duplication of management and other functions to a world in which the wireless and wired networks are deeply integrated. In this new and needed world, one management structure will control both. Changes will be made more efficiently, problems diagnosed and fixed more quickly and subscribers serviced and offered new services more fluidly.

The IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) is one of the main initiatives aimed at this simplification. It covers a big piece of the waterfront: the Internet and other IP-based networks. IMS operates at the packet-level. Thus, no distinction needs to be made over whether they are flowing over a wired or wireless network. A single management system supports both types of traffic.

In addition, the ubiquity of the Internet Protocol (IP) allows services and applications to be added far more easily than in the past. A good example of this is in the rollout of LTE. The first iterations were data only, with voice remaining on 3G. The next step – which is happening today – is the transition to Voice over LTE (VoLTE). This can be done on IMS-based networks by simply adding a voice server. It’s a winning strategy: The 3G spectrum is liberated and the headaches of a hybrid approach disappear.

A seemingly complementary approach – one that works beyond IP and occurs at a different level than IMS – is the software-defined network (SDN). Telecommunications networking protocols today are proprietary. Gear from different vendors generally can’t communicate unless those firms strike what in essence are side agreements. Moreover, subscriber data and management information is mixed together.

SDNs address both issues: They create standards that all vendors must follow, which enables multi-vendor networks. They also separate the “data plane” from the “control plane,” which allows management to be handled without impacting the subscriber data that is being trafficked. Together, these steps enable changes to be done via software and firmware downloads across an entire network. All vendors can be used and physically adjusting each switch and router to make changes is unnecessary.

It’s a complicated and interesting landscape. This week, Cisco introduced the Unified Access Data Plane (UADP) and other products. At Enterprise Networking Planet, Sean Michael Kerner described UADP as an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) – an IC built for a specific task – that converges wired and wireless traffic on enterprise networks. The story says that UADP links to Cisco One, the company’s SDN approach announced last June. The story describes the first Catalyst products onto which the UADP ASIC is being used. In a blog post yesterday, Cisco’s Lauren Friedman described the announcement and its importance in some detail.

The changes will keep coming. During the next few years, these strategies will be finalized and winners and losers will emerge. It’s monstrously complex, important and interesting.



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