Stressing Out About the Network

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We’ve been stressing out about a lot of things in 2020.  A lot of things.  Our health, the health and safety of our loved ones, should we invite back the house cleaners or get the kids to vacuum? (good luck with that), what’s happening to the economy, to our 401K? That’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of stressors. More recently, the conversation with friends/family (over Zoom) or colleagues (over e-mail) or neighbors (via our Facebook group), has turned to the network.  Some, a few, know how truly remarkable network performance has been during the pandemic.  Almost all are now stressing about their home network. Many have gone from an empty house and zero network traffic during the day to both parents working from home, frequently on Zoom meetings (or Teams, BlueJeans, Webex etc) and the kids at home, also on zoom calls with their classroom, or facetiming with friends or taking their own stresses out in MMOGs.   How many conversations have you had lately with your social circle regarding broadband service? Complaints regarding video conferencing quality are growing. Everyone wants to boost their WiFi signal to every nook and cranny in the house (and I can add “WiFi Extender” to the list of markets I’ve missed).  The pandemic has hammered home to everyone the fact that broadband connectivity is a basic need.  We are awakening to the always-on world of the twenty-first century.  And not just always on – always on in 4K live streaming video. 

This is stressing out the carriers.  Yes, 2020 is an anomaly that we will all be glad to put behind us, but from a networking perspective, carriers know it is a portent of thing to come.  And those things are coming fast.  The changes in traffic volume, traffic mix and traffic patterns that are an exception today will be the norm in two years. Overall network traffic is doubling every three years.  5G will demand a factor of 3 or 5 or 7 more based stations.  5G subscriptions have grown from 15 million in 2019 to over 230 million in 2020 and are on course to reach over 3 billion in 2025.  The Internet of Things is here – the number of IoT contracts awarded to carriers has grown from under 10 worldwide in 2009 to 1,168 as of 1Q20.  The number of connected cars, alone, has grown from 59 million in 2016 to a forecasted 308 million, worldwide, in 2022.  Ultra-low latency use cases are found, today, across vertical industries – healthcare, entertainment, transportation, manufacturing, energy, industrial automation.  

How are the carriers adapting to address these network stressors? As the next decade of network architectures and development approaches, “simplify” is the guiding principle— whether through virtualization, automation, machine learning, open source, COTS, proprietary systems, or all of the above.  Carriers are seeing a cloud-native network as the goal, but they are not sure of the path that will provide the greatest ROI. Carriers such as India’s Reliance Jio and Telefónica are innovating on a foundation of cloud-native development. However, Japan’s Rakuten Mobile secured its front-runner position in cloud-native with a fully virtualized, automated, and software-centric network, initially as an LTE network with 5G launched five months later. According to Rakuten Mobile, the level of virtualization and automation it has achieved means its cost to deploy 5G is 60% the capex and 70% the opex costs of traditional telecom operators.

Fig 1. Rakuten Mobile’s world’s first fully virtualized mobile network CAPEX and OPEX reductions

Rakuten Mobile along with its partners (notably QCT and Intel) worked together to design its infrastructure platforms that utilize the 2nd Generation Intel technologies for agility, flexibility, and scalability.  The data centers at the heart of Rakuten Mobile’s fully virtualized network are equipped with QCT’s servers that use Intel Xeon Scalable processors and FPGAs to achieve accelerated performance. This underlying foundation resulted in a platform that not only scales, but also enables continued innovation in terms of service creation.

Fig 2. Intel® technology is installed in QCT servers at data centers across the Rakuten Mobile network (Source:

By standardizing on a single, custom-built, hardware platform, Rakuten Mobile reduced the complexity of its network, simplified the VNF integration process, and improved its ability to automate, manage, and troubleshoot the environment. Telco operators normally maintain infrastructure with hundreds of different configurations. Rakuten Mobile uses less than 10 configurations in total and only 4 configurations for network edge sites.   Yes, it’s a greenfield operator without the stress that comes with supporting decades of technology. But for carriers lying awake at night working through the equation of petabytes more traffic, millions more cell sites, billions more connected devices, a scarcity of trained personnel, and the necessity for zero touch, lights out, data centers – the prospect of simplifying the network is a pretty good stress reducer.

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This blog was originally published on Light Reading and written by Jennifer P. Clark, Principal Analyst of Cloud Infrastructure & Edge Computing in Heavy Reading.

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Intel, the Intel logo, Optane, and Xeon Inside are trademarks or registered trademarks of Intel Corporation in the U.S. and/or other countries. All trademarks and logos are the properties of their respective holders.

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