Covid-19: What network providers need to do now

Arthur Cole

The Covid-19 pandemic has put the need for network flexibility and scalability into stark relief. Around the world, top communication service providers (CSPs) and their enterprise customers have had to ramp up connectivity across the board to accommodate the legions of teleworkers and other forms of online business activity flooding wide area networks.

We’re not talking about minor tweaks in the data load, but massive upswings in demand. ADVA’s Gareth Spence noted that Spain’s Telefonica was hit with a 40% gain in IP traffic virtually overnight, while mobile usage jumped 50%. In the US, providers like AT&T and Verizon have been hit with similar surges, leading them to cut deals with third-party providers to increase bandwidth.

Fortunately, there is plenty of spare capacity to handle this load. What’s lacking, however, is an efficient and effective means to scale this capacity up and down to meet rapidly changing requirements. While it’s true that both network providers and enterprises have been virtualizing their respective infrastructures on a gradual basis over the past decade or so, most connectivity still relies on fixed capacity arrangements with enough overhead to accommodate temporary spikes in traffic.

The current pandemic is likely to require a sustained period of scaled-up bandwidth and throughput, but at some point demand will wane as workers head back to the office and business returns to normal. When that happens, providers and customers alike will have to scale down their network resource consumption while still keeping them in reserve should the pandemic re-emerge or, heaven forbid, another crisis erupt.

This level of flexibility is what virtual and software-defined networking was made for. By severing the fixed relationship between hardware and software, entire network environments can be created on an abstract, virtual plane where they can be tailored for speed, scale, bandwidth and a wide range of other factors. And they can just as easily be shared, disaggregated, partitioned and decommissioned as needs arise.

Developing this level of functionality is not a simple matter of powering up a few new boxes in the network chain, however. Rather, it takes careful coordination between the network OS, hypervisor, management and automation systems, software-based controllers and a host of other devices. This is part of the reason why the roll-out is still ongoing even though much of the underlying technology is quite mature.

The key objective in the networking world these days, therefore, should be not just virtual or software-defined networking, but networking on demand. This will allow users to consume what they need when they need it without subjecting themselves, or their provider, to maintaining large amounts of idle resources to cover spikes in traffic. This is achieved by implementing robust, hierarchical and open control of the software-defined network to not just manage resources quickly and easily but to orchestrate them for maximum efficiency and availability. Transport networks also need to be managed under the same framework as the data center LAN, with full visibility on a single dashboard.

At the same time, carriers can begin delivering connectivity as a service, with all the flexibility and inherent cost-savings that accompany existing service-based offerings like software- and platform-as-a-service. Optical networks, in particular, are ripe for this kind of provisioning model, given that there are still vast sums of untapped spectrum in the optical wavelength. Through a mix of coherent optics, programmable grid technology and intelligent network control, CSPs are already finding that they can meet the skyrocketing demand for bandwidth even in an environment of falling margins. 

Too often in a crisis, organizations resort to knee-jerk, reactionary policies that address the urgent needs of the moment at the expense of long-term performance. For network operators struggling though today’s difficulties, however, the solution to fix problems in the short term will in fact lead to improved service in the future.

In this way, the networking industry is well positioned because the proper response for right now is also the key to more functional connectivity tomorrow.

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