Italian SP Deploys Homemade SDN Appliance

What's Facebook got that they ain't got?

Mitch Wagner, Executive Editor, Light Reading

February 17, 2015

4 Min Read
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.

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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.)

— 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 [email protected].

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About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

Executive Editor, Light Reading

San Diego-based Mitch Wagner is many things. As well as being "our guy" on the West Coast (of the US, not Scotland, or anywhere else with indifferent meteorological conditions), he's a husband (to his wife), dissatisfied Democrat, American (so he could be President some day), nonobservant Jew, and science fiction fan. Not necessarily in that order.

He's also one half of a special duo, along with Minnie, who is the co-habitor of the West Coast Bureau and Light Reading's primary chewer of sticks, though she is not the only one on the team who regularly munches on bark.

Wagner, whose previous positions include Editor-in-Chief at Internet Evolution and Executive Editor at InformationWeek, will be responsible for tracking and reporting on developments in Silicon Valley and other US West Coast hotspots of communications technology innovation.

Beats: Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), IP networking, and colored foods (such as 'green rice').

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