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@DevOpsSummit: Blog Post

SDN in Multi-System Operators By @ConteXtream | @DevOpsSummit [#SDN]

The need for dynamic programmability, network and function virtualization is clear

With the capability to reduce both CapEx and OpEx, it's easy to see why the SDN-NFV trend has taken hold in the hosting and mobile industry. Early use cases include network virtualization from cloud service providers and enterprise data centers, bandwidth calendaring and network tapping. While this early traction is promising and receiving great praise in the public eye, some of the most promising deployments are being seen in the cable multi-system-operator (MSO) industry. While these use cases aren't garnering as much attention, they are equally interesting and have the potential to be very powerful. There are several examples that demonstrate different applications offered by MSOs modernized by SDN, such as TV Video on Demand (VoD), voice, and data, which can be delivered in both native environments and on top of these MSO applications, in different network locations.

Virtualization 101
Before diving deeper into MSO-specific use cases, it is important to understand three basic principles within virtualization. While these are often combined to satisfy a given virtualization requirement, they are actually separate principles:

  1. Separating control functionality from forwarding. One way to accomplish this is to use the OpenFlow interface between software and networking hardware, enabling software innovation through this separation.
  2. Separating functionality from network nodes or junctions. An example would be functions applied inline at the home gateway or the cable modem termination system (CMTS) allowing for pooled dynamic elasticity of resource orchestration.
  3. Separating network identity from network location. This can be achieved by using overlay constructs such as network virtualization edge (NVE) tunnels, or service function forwarding (SFF), allowing for resource mobility, non-topological app "linking," and IP core simplification.

In examining each MSO use case you can see not only how these principles are combined and deployed into the network, but also why, with which applications and to what benefit.

IP Multimedia Subsystems
A simple use case is the virtualization of IP Multimedia Services (IMS). All landline carriers, including MSOs, now offer triple play services. Because telephony services are not MSO's primary business, offering triple play packages meant needing to quickly get up to speed on telephony application capabilities. This is reminiscent of when telecommunications companies needed to rapidly improve on their television applications. MSOs in this instance had to be very quick and efficient in their IMS rollout to be competitive. However, there was a delicate balance struck in being able to provide flat fee voice, which was essential for competing in the market, with the need to deliver voice services as reliable and feature-rich as the telecommunications offerings. To solve this problem and deliver advanced capabilities with a reasonable ROI, the leading MSOs decided to utilize a cloud strategy. Rather than placing a dedicated IMS Core in every major metropolitan area and designing for local peak capacity, cable operators deployed a network virtualization overlay fabric surrounding the core network, aggregating all IMS subscribers and cores nationally into one pool. This defragmentation has the same effect as averaging national demand in one datacenter, slashing needed capacity by about 50 percent by cutting out the need to keep a national standby datacenter idle in the background. By separating network identities from locations, the result is a significant CapEx and OpEx cost reduction.

Today, when a phone registers with an IMS core it does so with a logical identity destination and not a topological address. The virtualization fabric in the middle steers each phone registration to the best available resource dynamically in real time. Unlike pre-SDN measures for balancing global load, this method is immediate and maintains control functionality in-network.

GTM Global Load Balancing Defragmentation

This initial virtualization step opens the door for even more extensive use of NFV by MSOs. If millions of phones recognize the logical address of the service rather than the address of a big "box," then MSOs can evolve to offer IMS and sessions border controller (SBC) services while using low cost virtual machines. This would mean the use of thousands of distinct VMs rather than dozens of big boxes. The network overlay fabric and the dynamic compute allocation automates the operations complexity and allow for concurrent utilization. In addition, the capacity needs previously handled by monolithic systems over provisioned to peak traffic requirements are now geared for average use and cloud bursting.

If MSO overlay nodes were implemented to deliver the standard IETF, NVE and SFF encapsulations, it enables smart steering and tagging of the application traffic, implemented using control forwarding separation. With software defined control it is possible to achieve global awareness. This awareness can provide the status and location of each IMS resource, whether it is a big "box" with a capacity of one million users or single VM with a subscriber capacity of only 1,000. It can also provide real time data on the network response time and link load for each of the locations, as well as context awareness or the service profile of each subscriber with an affinity to a specific IMS core or SBC already established in order to protect application states. Furthermore, software defined control can deliver awareness of any lingering bugs and workarounds in any of the millions of user appliances that need to be applied, as well as the facilitation of future down times and maintenance windows of core resources.

From the forwarding perspective, SDN needs to provide simple commodity flow classification and fast packet delivery. This is achieved by fusing software definitions and hardware to each node using OpenFlow. This virtualized rollout of service, initially VoIP, now allows MSOs to offer applications not only to wired customers but also to nomadic users and even other carriers.

MSO Advanced Access
These virtualization basics and VoIP applications also enable advanced wireless access services for MSOs. All carriers target smartphones and tablets users for data and social media network consumption. MSOs have been deploying large public hot-spots to serve their customers so they can access these services when away from home. This means that all the extra functionality and protections available from the home equipment or CPE is not present with the user, and therefore needs to be delivered in-network. However, since this is the case for a critical portion of traffic, it makes sense to treat all traffic, even that coming through the home Wi-Fi gateway, in the same way. This means weaving the needed functionality into the data path based on the identity of the subscriber not location.

NFV Resource Chaining and Balancing

In-network and access-agnostic
When addressing in-network capabilities, the CPE and wireless access gateways (WAG) functionality must be organized, as well as any other value added features like filters or optimizers. This pool of resources is not bound to any specific node and not pre-bound to a specific set of subscribers. These resources are then distributed across regional and national data centers and, just like in the IMS example, the network fabric is allowed to map and connect flows per subscriber through these functions for native, in-network, hosted or over-the-top applications. This allows for faster rollout of differentiated services, eliminates the complexity of updating home equipment with new software, reduces dependency on boxes designed for specific functionality, and eliminates the need for 1+1 redundancy of gateways. This approach reduces the capacity needs for each function to average expectancy; takes into account global parameters of the network and compute, and allows for explicit targeting of a specific user experience and cost structure per application. It also allows for selective in-production testing.

Back to the physical infrastructure
With the basics of network virtualization and service abstraction in place for IMS services, it makes sense for MSOs to reexamine their bread-and-butter core TV and VoD services.

MSOs leapfrogged voice applications while telecommunication companies leapfrogged television in order to deliver triple play. This has led MSOs to seek ways to catch up on their legacy applications, which is enabling MSOs to work toward offering TV and VoD as IP services. However, unlike wireless access and VoIP, HDTV applications are very high bandwidth, requiring control forwarding separation and the utilization of OpenFlow in fabric nodes.

This is just the beginning. Better dynamic software control is needed over the HFC bandwidth allocated to each location, home or public access point. Packet cable multimedia (PCMM) provisions and technologies like this already exist in many of the cable modem termination systems (CMTSs), but are not widely used. This is because these measures are considered too complex to deploy large-scale and lack the global context of when and why to allocate capacity. On a more fundamental level, there wasn't a real need for dynamics like this in IP services until now. Oversubscription was the simpler, cheaper approach for delivering applications. This is not the case for the premium voice and media applications that are being delivered today. Fortunately the complex challenges of yesterday can now be mitigated by new MSO SDN capabilities.

Another aspect of software-defined programming for the physical network has to do with the core network itself. Historically, high bandwidth linear TV made its way to users through a satellite feed, which meant the same content was propagated to all locations at the same time. This is an efficient delivery mechanism, but it doesn't work for on-demand and network DVR consumption. As a result, the core of the network needed to be a lot more powerful in order to carry IPTV distribution. Many core links must be balanced and utilized dynamically, separating bursty, large backup flows from streaming flows. This cannot be achieved through static circuit provisioning of the core network and must rely on overlay measures, called segment routing, applied by network virtualization overlay edges or NVEs for efficiently driving the core IP underlay.

As a result, carrier SDN fabrics are beginning to integrate control of the overlay applications, the underlay segments, and HFC outer-lay virtualization, based on SDN-NFV architectures. These are already being deployed on networks serving production traffic using open standards and state of the art SDN open source distributions. The result is significant improvements to service delivery while enabling MSOs to more efficiently and effectively manage their networks.

More Stories By Sharon Barkai

Sharon Barkai conceived of and began ConteXtream in 2006 after a career spent founding and managing highly successful technology companies. Before ConteXtream, he was Founder & CEO of Xeround Systems, which, by virtue of its innovative MapReduce approach to database performance and scalability, is a leader in the rapidly growing market for mobile subscriber databases and database as a service (DBaaS) Prior to Xeround, Sharon was Founder and CEO of Sheer Networks. Sheer Networks developed a highly successful cluster-based control & management plane for Consumer Broadband networks which was adopted by Tier 1 Operators worldwide. Cisco Systems bought Sheer Networks in 2005. Sharon began his career in Engineering, rising to Director of Engineering at 3Com. He received his Bachelor's degree in Computer Science and Mathematics from Hebrew University, and MSc from Colombia University School of Engineering.

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