Italian SP Deploys Homemade SDN Appliance
Italian Internet service provider NGI SpA is designing and deploying its own SDN appliance to bring fixed wireless Internet to rural, mountainous terrain.
NGI SpA covers 11 out of the 20 Italian regions, with 160,000 subscribers and a focus on fixed wireless. It provides broadband up to 30 Mbps for end users and enterprise customers.
NGI's EOLO wireless network began as an alternative to wireline DSL to provide services that were lacking in rural, mountain areas, says NGI CTO Giacomo Bernardi. The company launched wireless service in 2000, and now brings in 42 million revenues.
The network upgrade planned for this year will allow NGI to expand to four new regions in northern Italy. These regions are lagging behind the EU schedule for broadband Internet.
NGI plans to start a pilot rollout in March, and replace equipment in each radio tower, completing the project by the end of the year.
NGI is spending $10 million on the project, which is part of a bigger investment plan to upgrade its network through 2017 at a cost of 84 million.
"We were growing fast with this wireless network all over Italy. A couple of years ago we had 1,000 radio towers all over the country. Our network was starting to become a bit large," Bernardi says. NGI was unable to expand with its existing architecture.
"Imagine this very large network with over 1,000 points of presence. Each of these points of presence is a radio tower. Most of them are installed in remote locations, on tops of mountains and places you have very good radio coverage," Bernardi says. The network is dense and customers are coming on at a rate of 5,000 per month. NGI needed to find a scalable architecture.
It solicited RFPs and RFIs in the first quarter of 2012 from the "usual vendors," says Bernardi, adding that he's under NDA and can't name them, but they're the "three largest network vendors -- it's easy to guess." Their solutions were based on hardware that was inappropriate to the deployment conditions. The hardware wasn't going to be installed in a climate-controlled data center -- it would be at the base of radio towers. Conditions are harsh and power is constrained -- it's expensive to bring uninterrupted power to the locations.
"We began to wonder whether it was time to build our own solution. We hear a lot about open computing, the Open Compute Project, even startups that are smaller than us that design their own servers and networking gear. It's a good time," Bernardi says. The Open Compute Project is a Facebook -led organization to create open source specs for all elements of a data center, including servers, storage, networking and racks. (See Open Compute Project Takes on Networking or Facebook in Production Testing of Open 'Wedge' Switch.)
NGI met with Boston-based Tilera Corp. , which was acquired by EZchip Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: EZCH) this summer, and chose Tilera's 1U rack appliances as the hardware basis for its appliances, one for each tower. The appliances each have 24 1 Gbit/s slots and two 10 Gbit/s slots and are based on Tilera's 72-core TILE-Gx CPU. Power requirements are good, and the device supports temperatures of -15 degrees C to 75 degrees C. NGI signed the agreement with Tilera in the first quarter of 2014. (See EZchip Strikes $130M Deal to Buy Tilera.)
"Then we started defining the architecture," Bernardi says. "It was a very fun experience for me, because you have a whiteboard in front of you and you have your own infrastructure to design. I gathered people working in our company and we decided how to define the next-generation network."
Bernardi took a year-long sabbatical from his position as CTO to focus on this project.
NGI decided to exploit the dense interconnection between towers. Because the interconnections are mostly wireless, NGI has much lower link costs than fiber links. "It's much cheaper to bring up a radio link between the two towers than to dig fiber between them," Bernardi says. "Over the years we have a degree of interconnection which is high; we have an average of 1.6 links per tower. It's really a very dense mesh, and we were able to exploit it."
NGI decided to use OpenFlow and Open vSwitch interfaces to distribute traffic over different flows and multiple links depending on application and QoS requirements.
6WIND will provide the 6WindGate Packet application framework, after signing an agreement with NGI at the end of last year. "For us it's a big shortcut, because instead of starting from scratch, we could start from something," Bernardi says. "It's a big cost saver for us. It enables us to improve the performance of Open vSwitch." (See NGI Taps 6WIND, EZchip for Wireless Broadband.)