Dell explores software-based networks in telcos
Telecommunications will rely heavily on software that run on servers—often described as software-defined networking (SDN) or network functions virtualisation (NFV)—to reduce the dependence on hardware and enable energy-efficient servers and datacentres, as Dell and Intel executives emphasised at an Intel event.
"The focus of Dell's main hardware business is changing over time. As you switch to a time where software-based is going to be a reality, software is going to be embedded in more things," Dell Software President John Swainson said at the event. "Software is becoming the way we at Dell add value to basic hardware and the way we configure it."
Still, transitioning to these functions is a complicated, multi-layer process that involves a variety of infrastructures. Networking equipment is still transitioning from a market founded on basic custom designs to a more service and partner-driven one, while existing equipment in enterprise spaces such as routers and switches needs to be realigned or repurposed for SDN.
Companies are not effectively using the breadth of assets already in the market, said Rose Schooler, VP and GM of Intel's Communications and Storage Infrastructure Group. Such a move would create an ecosystem of networking tools, giving companies like HP, Dell, and Oracle a "much more prominent role and public role in telco operations.
"The value system is changing and an ecosystem emerging. Networking has never had an ecosystem; it has had a supply chain where an RFI has been submitted and the traditional equipment manufacturers provided end-to-end capability. With the disaggregation of software from hardware, we're seeing the first substantiation of a true networking ecosystem."
In the telecom industry this ecosystem could include small cells to improve coverage and user experience, or in places with a large fibre install base, cloud access technologies could be adopted. Schooler also suggests creating ASICs to put less traffic in backhaul for geographies with smaller amounts of fibre.
Officials at Dell want to take software-enabled networking one step further and create channels that primarily consist of software-based networks (SBNs). The company is already in the cloud brokering business and aims to tackle the datacenter and server space with high-capacity, simple hardware.
By using servers for telecommunications jobs, "more of the software can be written using much more familiar tools for a much wider population of programmers. It just drives that next level of innovation," Jai Menon, VP of research and innovation and head of Dell Research, told EE Times. "Tremendous power and functions can be done now with just software running on servers. You don't need that [traditional telco] box at all."
The telecom industry is ripe for SBN because of the quick pace of mobile data increase and the slow pace of infrastructure installation. Unburdened by hardware providers, telecom companies using SBNs will be able to rapidly enter new arenas.
"Networking needs to change dynamically, and you need an agile datacentre that's able to flexibly grow and shrink storage capability, networking capability," Menon told us, suggesting telecom companies using SBNs may be able to cache closer to the edge to reduce bandwidth. "The agility that software-based stuff provides will be really important for the telcos to start entering into IoT spaces."
Although the journey to SBN in the telecom industry may take 10 years, Menon said his research team is doing early proof-of-concept research to support 1 million telecom users on a quarter rack of standard Dell servers and some software. The team is also researching how to take a typical server and increase its packet processing rate from 200,000 packets per second to 2 million packets per second.
"You're still going to find purpose-built hardware... for a very long time. For almost everything else, good enough will be good enough," Dell's Swainson says. "If you start taking basic switching and routing stuff and say you can do it on software and general purpose hardware, it will have an impact."
- Jessica Lipsky
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