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MP-TCP link bonding protocol offers declining MPLS a much needed life-line

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Recent work on a new approach to Hybrid Access emerging from one of the industry standards body is likely to be music to the ears of the major carriers who have seen a steady erosion of their market share by the more agile Internet service providers.

Despite the many benefits that an MPLS based VPN connection can offer businesses, particularly in terms of security and SLA guarantees, the major carriers have struggled to prevent customers opting to move some or all of their WAN architecture onto a low-cost, high-speed Internet link and VPN as soon as contracts allow.

To some extent this trend is an understandable consequence of the growth in the uptake of Cloud applications as the basis of corporate communications. Most network managers agree that MPLS is not ideally suited to handling large volumes of traffic and has led to network congestion and performance headaches for IT teams, for which just increasing bandwidth is not necessarily the solution. In addition there are still lots of businesses that choose a hybrid approach to hosting applications with some in the corporate data center and others in the Cloud. This means that moving to an all Internet infrastructure is not going to solve the problem in all cases either.

The obvious answer is to opt for some form of hybrid MPLS/Internet access ecosystem that can provide granular control of all traffic across the WAN and ensure that load can be spread across multiple links based on a range of business priorities and policies. While this approach is great in theory the reality can mean high capex investment in load balancing for a sub-optimal solution.

Application-aware policy-based traffic distribution means any given application/session is restricted to a single link’s bandwidth, which leads to the expensive MPLS being under-utilized without adding any link failure reliability. With cost-saving also a major factor for businesses looking for an alternative to MPLS it is easy to see why some companies decide to go for the pure-play Internet-based option, even at the cost of losing the reputed SLA and security benefits offered by MPLS.
However, recent exciting developments emerging from the Broadband Forum are promising to enable advanced hybrid access functionality to be embedded in the CPE, which is great news for carriers looking to be able to offer customers the type of services they need while retaining their private corporate VPN at an acceptable price-point.

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Two killer forces shaping the future of the CPE

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Powerful forces are steering the development of the CPE, explains Pravin Mirchandani, CMO at service-enabling network access specialist, OneAccess.

As the telecoms industry continues to hack a path toward network virtualization, the terms used to describe future customer premises equipment (CPE) are under almost continuous review. ‘White box’, ‘virtual CPE’ (vCPE) and ‘physical CPE’ (pCPE) each represent their own specific and shifting vision of how the network functions present in today’s CPE will be virtualized. But beneath the jargon, two powerful forces are steering the technology’s development.

1. The need to support non-Ethernet legacy connections

Ethernet is the assumed and, by and large, the only connectivity option for a low-cost white box approach, yet it is far from ubiquitously available as a WAN connectivity option at the customer premises. What’s more, the cost of increasing Ethernet coverage for connecting customer premises (typically by fiber) is growing as the lower cost, high-density deployment options become exhausted. Consequently, one of the key issues that virtualization faces is the need to support legacy connections between TDM-based PBX, alarm and other serial connections to various types of DSL-based WAN access technologies. This means that the bridging technology - the purpose-designed CPE - will be around for some time, especially for network connectivity devices and voice gateways.

2. To work, some functions need to be on the network’s edge

As the guy responsible for products at an access platform CPE vendor, what strikes me about our current work plan and roadmap is the huge amount of additional functionality that our CSP and MSP customers are asking us to deliver in our current-generation CPE. These include link management schemes for failover, bonding and offload; as well as shaping and event-based schemes, to ensure that business-critical Cloud-based applications flow regardless of the state of the network. Additional measurement capability is also being demanded, to remotely diagnose issues and ensure that SLAs are met. Security-hardening is also a request. The list goes on. By their nature, these types of intelligent functions have to reside in the CPE; you can’t failover, offload or measure local service levels remotely from the Cloud.

Given that you can’t economically ‘white-box’ legacy connectivity requirements, nor can you centralize network functions that rightly belong on the customer premises, only part of the CPE is ripe for virtualization. With this in mind, don’t expect today’s CPE appliances to disappear from the network’s edge any time soon.

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NFV: The Current State of Play

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Act One of the NFV show has finished, leaving operators to sift through the hype, piece together what they have learned and knuckle down to the serious business of design, feasibility and business case development. Pravin Mirchandani, CMO and NFV Evangelist at OneAccess, recounts some sentiments and soundbites from the NFV circuit.

1. Whoa! NFV is expensive!

Operators have now moved beyond best guess, back-of-the-envelope cost estimates. At least some measured CAPEX projections are in, and with them comes a grudging realization of quite how costly NFV is going to be. Why? Because operators must build x86 server farms right across their network in order to host their NFV infrastructure (NFVi); something which is going to mean a significant investment up front. What’s more, because virtualized traffic management requires the NFVi to be distributed (to provide appropriate location of network functions and traffic management right across the geographic reaches of the network), savings can’t be made by consolidating these farms on a single location. Sitting on top of the compute infrastructure, there is of course the software infrastructure and network functions, which also needs to be funded. What this has resulted in is a marked shift in focus to citing OPEX savings, service velocity and service agility as the main justifications for NFV, away from CAPEX reductions

2. We need SLAs, not just I/O

To date, when considering performance, the industry’s focus has been on input/output (I/O) but, given that virtualized network functions (VNFs) are sold as services to paying customers, I/O is only half of the story. To be commercial contenders, VNFs need to be associated with performance guarantees that are enshrined in service level agreements (SLAs). Further, an assessment of compute and memory footprint for each network function is required in order to assess deployment scalability. This is no great challenge where dedicated hardware is concerned, but when the network function is software-based (as with a VNF), located on a shared computing platform, the factors influencing performance are dependent on a range of resource-related variables, making guarantees harder to establish. This area needs serious attention before the NFV can move into a fully commercial phase with the major operators.

3. Pricing is all over the map

Many operators won’t open the door to a VNF vendor without full disclosure of their pricing model, especially as a couple of leading vendors have announced pricing levels that are considered by the operators as unreasonable. Pricing models also remain fragmented between vendors, making it difficult for operators to compare like for like. The software element, in particular, is a minefield. Unsurprisingly, some vendors are applying NFV pricing in accordance with the anticipated impact that NFV will have on their future hardware revenues. This is distorting the market at a very early stage, inhibiting assessment by the operator community.

4. VNF trials are defined by what’s available, not by what’s needed

A lamentable result of the current NFV market is that operators’ choices of VNF trials are being defined by availability, not strategic objectives. vCPE and virtual firewall functions have both been around for a while, but are these two functions the only ones that the operators want to do? Perhaps it’s too early to say. In any case, the real focus of today’s VNF trials is to successfully build the NFVi and nail down the orchestration and management pieces. In this sense, it doesn’t yet matter what the actual VNF is. Over time, this will change. Operators will begin to assess which VNFs are the most important for their business, and which will save them the most money? Ideally, operators should be bringing this thinking forward; if they settle on VNFs that differ from those they have trialled, it will be a struggle to understand the commercial, technical and operational implications.

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Packet-based traffic management is the optimum combination for hybrid access protocols

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As has been highlighted many times, a major focus of attention for vendors like OneAccess continues to be on working on innovations that ensure businesses have reliable high-speed access to their Cloud-based applications.

There can be little doubt that the Cloud is rapidly changing the fundamental nature of computing for businesses large and small. Analysts such as IDC are even going as far as predicting that terms like public and private clouds will eventually disappear from our vocabulary just becoming the de facto standard for business IT provisioning by as soon as 2020.

If IDC is right, the communications’ industry and its supply chain, over the next five years, needs to agree on the standards framework that will ultimately drive the innovation needed to ensure reliable high-speed Cloud access for all businesses and individual users alike. At the moment for some, having a connection that they can depend on can still be a lottery based ultimately on their physical location and local link options.

Application performance and availability are the major factors that are determining the rate of Cloud adoption across the board, with restricted bandwidth and traffic congestion often cited as among the primary reasons for delayed migration. If users cannot be guaranteed that they will not be faced with frequent disruptions and poor quality of experience (QoE) they are unlikely to fully embrace the Cloud in the time-frame that IDC suggests.

In cases where fiber has not yet reached the cabinet (nor is likely to any time soon) the only realistic and viable solution to overcome these objections is to find ways of efficiently aggregating multiple connections to boost the capacity of the available links. There are several multi-path protocols such as IFOM that help boost performance in the Wifi/3GPP mobile networks, but an industry standard approach is yet to fully emerge for the aggregation of Wifi, LTE, xDSL and even broadband satellite links between the CPE and a central hybrid aggregation gateway.

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SDN/NFV – Is it the breakthrough CSPs need to help level the OTT playing field?

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I think that it is fair to say that the business communications services market is going through one of its most challenging periods at the moment as CSPs struggle to come to terms with the demand for faster, more reliable and feature-rich services from their customers, whilst also dealing with increased competition and the inevitable pressure this puts on prices. Although this is a typical and predictable scenario in what is a rapidly maturing tech-based market, it means that service providers cannot afford to assume that their customers will continue to renew their contracts out of a sense of loyalty, no matter what.

With increased choices for core communications requirements such as telephony and business application services readily available from specialist 3rd party providers in the Cloud, the CSPs’ pipe is now in danger of becoming regarded as just another basic utility along with the mains power and water services any organization needs to function. The challenge for CSPs is to find ways to tap into the new revenue potential, and compensate for ARPU decreases, by offering innovative new services themselves and fighting back against the OTT players who are increasingly eating more of their lunch. But it is not easy to see how this can be achieved without a radical change to their existing core infrastructure and CPE access technologies.

Given this challenging picture, the arrival of SDN/NFV technology on the scene could be the timely and welcome development CSPs have been looking for. With the potential to level the playing field and enabling the rapid rollout of new services virtually on demand, service providers could realistically begin to compete on price, features and functionality with pure-play hosted service operators.

SDN, and NFV functionality in particular provides the prospect of enabling service providers to add new features or switch existing services on and off in alignment with customers’ changing needs without having to install new network edge devices or change the CPE. When combined with the ability to remotely manage and provision unlimited numbers of individual routers from a central office location it means the proposition could literally be a game-changer for service providers.

SDN/NFV however, represents both opportunity and challenge for CSPs. Its promise of agility, flexibility and reduced costs are highly attractive but implementing SDN/NFV across their current silo-based organization and changing well-established business practices will be a non-trivial and lengthy set of people-oriented tasks to navigate. CSPs are also looking to vendors to progress beyond architectural and vision statements and show them some real use-cases for this new technology.

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Agile businesses of all sizes need communications partners that can offer flexible, future-proof solutions

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There is no doubt that the operational and financial appeal of “The Cloud” is gaining more traction each year and across a wider spectrum of businesses, with Gartner[1] predicting that more than half of IT spend will be Cloud related in 2016 and over half of large enterprises having a public/private hybrid Cloud platform by 2017.

What is also evident is that the more the “X-as-a-service” range grows the more the Cloud becomes a compelling and realistic option for mid-size and smaller agile businesses, who see the flexibility it offers not only as a way of controlling costs but also critical in terms of staying competitive by enabling greater alignment between IT consumption and market fluctuations. This pragmatic approach particularly applies to multi-branch organizations where application and data sharing is crucial to the productivity of the business, which otherwise could mean significant IT investment in potentially redundant LAN-based resources and expensive localized support systems.

To derive the full benefit from the Cloud, agile businesses need to engage with equally agile communications service providers (CSPs), which are able to deliver fast and reliable access capable of supporting a broad range of granular, all-IP based services in an exclusively WAN-dependent environment. Using the same argument it follows that agile CSPs need equally agile technology vendor partners, who can help them to respond to the evolving demands of their customers with flexible and scalable products at competitive price-points.

Traditionally, CSPs have had limited choices when it comes to selecting the CPE router devices that provide the access gateway to the Cloud, particularly for the highly competitive and price-sensitive small to mid-range branch office sector. Although the leading router vendors such as Cisco are geared towards the major enterprise market, in the perceived absence of a real alternative these well-known suppliers have typically gone on to become incumbent partners for many CSPs.

However, we are now seeing this trend beginning to break down as CSPs look to gain competitive advantage in a buyers’ market and last year our new generation of multi-service routers, purpose-designed for CSPs, over two quarters out-shipped Cisco in Europe for the smaller, branch office customer sector. These routers not only enable CSPs to offer high performance SLAs but provide a platform for a range of value-added services that can both enhance the user experience and ensure efficient bandwidth provisioning for both data and voice-based, fixed-line and mobile, communications.

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Latest News

  • EKINOPS Celebrates MEF Technology Solutions Award Win

    EKINOPS (Euronext Paris - FR0011466069 – EKI),a leading provider of open, future-proof and flexible network solutions to service providers, has been recognised with a Technology Solutions Award at the 2019 MEF Awards, which took place during the leading industry conference, MEF19 in Los Angeles.

     
  • EKINOPS and IEC Telecom Group deliver next-generation maritime satellite communication solution

    EKINOPS (Euronext Paris - FR0011466069 – EKI), a leading supplier of optical transport equipment and router solutions for network operators, has launched with IEC Telecom Group, one of the leading global providers of managed network communication solutions, OneGate, an agile solution that protects the critical communications functions of maritime vessels.

     
  • EKINOPS to showcase joint SD-WAN Proof of Concept at MEF 2019 together with TELUS and Inmanta

    EKINOPS (Euronext Paris - FR0011466069 – EKI),a leading provider of open, future-proof and  fully flexible network solutions to service providers, has been selected by MEF to participate in the sixth annual MEF 3.0 PoC Showcase at leading industry conference, MEF19, which is taking place from 18 to 22 November 2019 in Los Angeles.

     

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