Demystifying the fast emerging carrier cloud (3)

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Here is the presentation that I delivered at IIT’s Real Time Communications Conference back in October. For those of you who might not yet be familiar with what’s going on with cloud computing in the telecommunications industry, what follows outlines key terms driving that discussion:

Carrier cloud – most typically, this refers to cloud infrastructure (data center environments) owned and operated by wide area network operators, who are also known as “carriers” in the telecommunications industry. These are utilities whose “carrier systems” handle a number of communication channels with network traffic for services such as digital voice, video and data. Phone and cable tv companies being well known examples. What differentiates the carrier cloud from other, let’s say conventional clouds, is:

  1. the need for addressing “carrier grade” requirements meeting five nines high availability standards to meet both market expectations and regulatory compliance
  2. the context of wide area networks in metropolitan, regional, national and global geographies which, architecturally speaking, are comprised of a mix of centralized and distributed assets.

Bottom line: carriers operate sophisticated end-to-end systems that support real-time digital communications that can be subject to high demand and be bandwidth intensive.

Network functions virtualization – NFV is a fairly recent development in a telecommunications industry where conventional gear is typically sold as dedicated hardware and can come with tightly integrated software stacks. NFV calls for decoupling control and data planes instead and deconstructing the stack in the process. Basically, what this actually means is that the bulk of a given network element’s intelligence (software) can run on a virtual machine (also software). This takes place in a data center that is equipped with:

  • more widely available hardware (commercially speaking) which is far less expensive than traditional telco gear
  • its general purpose design is leveraged as a shared resource serving multiple applications, and registering higher utilization levels as a result
  • the new “carrier cloud” is built on the COTS (Commercial Off-the-Shelf) supply chain model and calls for competing multi-vendor solutions.

The thinking is that software defined assets can better scale by automatically growing and degrowing to meet demand curves – spinning up more virtual machines, instantiating and provisioning services near-on-demand. This translates into lean operations and unprecedented business agility. As an example, new deployments that could take days, weeks and even months under conventional architectures would not be a match for carrier clouds taking just minutes or hours.

Virtual network functions – under NFV’s next gen model, conventional network elements would eventually be superseded by software defined versions, and they would then become virtual network functions themselves. These are applications supported by common NFV Management & Operation platforms. VNFs  get to leverage shared resource pools available from computing fabrics consisting of cloud nodes and network infrastructure.

There are significant gains that come with consolidating by centralizing, not just with regards to capital expenditures, but also when looking into operational costs and improved control. Though, trade-offs impacting overall performance and quality of service can implicate diminishing returns and hidden costs triggered by some loosely coupled systems that add latency, more complex flows and processing, and all of that ends up to be coupled with traffic overhead…the complete opposite of what cloud computing calls for.

Therefore, centralization also prompts a need for revisiting and better defining modularity, interoperability and openness. By the same token, there is growing interest in programmability, machine-learning, real-time monitoring and predictive analytics, streamlining flows and lean operations, load balancing, data acceleration, compression, lifecycle automation and understanding what packet and split processing as well as hybrid architectures comprised of centralized and distributed assets bring to the table.

Software Defined Networking – SDN is a bit better known term given its three year head start when compared to NFV. SDN first capitalized into the difference between managing and optimizing network traffic (control plane) vs. forwarding packets (data plane) and embraced programmable networking.

Control and data plane’s physical separation allows for a controller to live in the carrier cloud instead of cohabitating in the same hardware. OpenFlow is best known as an open source protocol addressing control and data plane communications in SDN frameworks. When thinking of fulfilling the promise behind application aware networks and service oriented architectures, it makes even more sense to look further into logical self-organizing networks that can be set to outperform conventional systems and greatly simplify operations.

By means of a quick example encompassing all of the above: AAA (Authentication, Authorization and Accounting) is a security architecture matching users with the services they have access to. Under the NFV model, this can be deployed as VNFs running on VMs in a carrier cloud. This application taps into a shared pool (compute, storage) to grow and degrow to meet demand’s ups & downs. SDN gets these VMs dynamically hooked to the network and works intelligently to address the needs of the VNFs around the clock. All automated, programmable and with extremely short lead times, self-service and dramatically lower costs.

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