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What's Driving the Need for Network Agility?

Mitch Wagner

A laundry list of technology trends is requiring network operators to make their networks more agile. These include mobility, the cloud, and virtualization, with video exacerbating the problem, says a Ciena executive.

Until recently, networks demands were relatively static, changing slowly, in a predictable fashion, and under carrier control. But now things are changing fast, and customers are driving demand unpredictably, says Mitch Auster, senior director of market development for Ciena Corp. (NYSE: CIEN).

I talked with Auster about Ciena's Agility Multilayer WAN Controller, announced this week. (See Ciena Introduces Management Tools to Make Networks Flexible.) The WAN management software is designed to help carriers meet the unpredictable bandwidth demands of today's enterprise and cloud customers. Auster started by describing what those needs are, which seemed sufficiently interesting and useful to warrant a separate article.

Enterprise and cloud customers make network demand uncertain and unpredictable. Carriers need to be able to meet demand spikes and changes without overprovisioning the network, Auster said.

Mobility is one of the primary drivers of shifting demand. Mobility makes it uncertain where content will be received.

Similarly, the cloud makes data sources unpredictable and movable. "Content and apps can be served from a number of different data centers," Auster said. "It used to be from the company's own enterprise data centers. But now the end users can be getting applications and content on any number of cloud data centers. That causes uncertainty. And cloud providers themselves may shift content from one data center to another for proximity, their own management, or follow-the-moon/follow-the-sun efficiencies."

Virtualized computing requires flexibility by moving from one hardware server or data center to another, bringing related data and storage with it. An enterprise customers might unpredictably need 20 Gbit/s bandwidth for 30 minutes to transfer the virtual machine and its associated storage between data centers. "But you don't want to configure the network for that peak. You want to allocate the resources just for the duration of that transaction."

Video, though not contributing to uncertainty directly, exacerbates the problem. Network operators are no longer dealing with short messages and email; they have to manage HD and 4K video streams, along with terabyte-sized data files.

"The overall problem is to make better use of network resources and become more efficient," Auster said. "It's to streamline and automate operations, as opposed to having to go to multiple vendor management systems." Carriers need to allow customers to service themselves and let applications directly program the network, to save operating expenses and, more importantly, let the carrier become more agile.

It's a problem multiple vendors are trying to address. The need for greater network agility is behind Cisco's recently introduced WAN Automation Engine, as well as the company's overall Application Centric Infrastructure strategy. (See Cisco Intros Automated WAN Management, Cisco Integrates Virtual, Physical Networks, and For Cisco, Is 'SDN' Code for 'Crush VMware?') Cyan Inc. recently introduced Planet Orchestrate, which is designed to allow carriers to manage physical and virtual networks. (See Cyan Debuts Planet Orchestrate to Manage Physical & Virtual Network Resources.) And Overture is introducing a hardware approach to help carriers make enterprise customer networks more agile. (See Overture Adds Hardware to Its NFV Pitch .)

Ultimately, customers, rather than carriers, will drive innovation on carrier networks. (See CenturyLink: Customers Will Drive Innovation on Carrier Networks.)

The change raises business challenges, and automating provisioning has its own problems to overcome. (See SDN Raises Business Challenges and Automation of Provisioning Still Elusive Goal.)

Overall, the need for greater network agility represents a seismic shift in carrier networking, and vendors are scrambling to meet the need.

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to wagner@lightreading.com.

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User Rank: Light Sabre
7/10/2014 | 9:59:02 PM
Re: What's Driving the Need for Network Agility?
@FakeMitchWagner, as you point out, it is not just more variables and increased volume from their models of customer needs, it is entirely new capabilities to build in the agility to respond to the dynamic use of their networks.  It seems that those who can build the models that can adapt and deliver timely, will have a real edge.  It is an entirely different game, not just new rules.
User Rank: Lightning
7/10/2014 | 9:32:44 AM
Re: Understanding needs
Mitch (if that's really your name),

The major suppliers (and many smaller ones) each individually understand what operators are asking for in terms of automation, efficiency, etc. I think that the real challenge is for the suppliers to reach consensus on the right tools/standards to get the jobs done at the various layers and parts of the network. It's one step for Ciena or Cisco or anyone else to have a good software technology, the bigger step is getting the supplier competition to also agree on the technology to move forward. 

Ciena is using ODL as the means to drive consensus, which is good. But there's still alot of opportunity for efforts to get bogged down within ODL, and also for other initiatives, standards groups, etc. to rise up in the future. For the operators globally, there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty within the SDN ecosystem right now. 

User Rank: Light Sabre
7/9/2014 | 10:14:37 PM
Re: Understanding needs
Ciena has certainly been around long enough to know what their customers might want/need... (and it's also been burned by a major carrier testing their equipment and then backing off a huge deployment.)

The networking business is global now, so I assume Ciena will find a customer for these agile tools in an innovative market (that may not be the US).
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
7/9/2014 | 4:42:21 PM
Understanding needs
Ciena certainly seems to understand carrier needs. The question for them is whether they're able to execute on that understanding. It doesn't help a restaurant to know what its customers want to eat if the chef can't cook. 
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