SDN and Gigabit Speeds: Enabling Networking's Newest Generational Moment

Kevin O’Toole, SVP, Comcast

Kevin O’Toole, SVP, Comcast

It’s not often that the networking industry finds itself in the midst of the next generational moment, but I believe that’s exactly where we are with the convergence of two fundamental technologies: software-defined networking (SDN) and gigabit broadband speeds.

"In a nutshell, SDN allows users to centralize management of critical business applications, simplify network operations, and reduce the cost of hardware"

Other pivotal moments in networking date back to the dawn of the internet. In business networks, we evolved from frame relay and asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) in the Nineties, to Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) and Carrier Ethernet as our 21st century wide area networking technologies. All of these were big ideas at the time, and they’ve served us well to this point—with varying degrees of success and disappointments.

That’s why when a new way of delivering network services emerges, people are eager and ready to listen. SDN is emerging as the future of complex business networking services. This extremely flexible and cost-effective new technology allows IT departments to virtualize functions and greatly simplify the way they run data networks.

SDN makes it possible for engineers and administrators to deploy and support distributed enterprise networks through centralized software controls that can activate and manage resources when and where they are needed. This new way of delivering services—from routers and networking to security—promises unprecedented performance and flexibility. And because SDN operates in software, it allows IT departments to eliminate much of the equipment typically required at the edge of the network, reducing costs and complexities. In a nutshell, SDN allows users to centralize management of critical business applications, simplify network operations, and reduce the cost of hardware.

The other key technology development is the deployment of gigabit broadband. Comcast is now deploying a new set of technologies that allows a gigabit of broadband to be delivered transactionally to virtually every business and most homes in the U.S. When a gigabit of bandwidth can be delivered over the last mile at very low costs, it can change the way we architect WANs.

The combination of gigabit broadband and SDN sets networking on a journey that will take out significant complexity and costs, and that’s something that we have to do. Today, there are thousands of devices accessing hundreds of apps, adding tremendous complexities and demands on networks. Businesses are migrating the majority if not all of their IT workloads to the cloud, and as enterprise traffic makes its trip across the WAN, the last mile and onto the internet, those pathways must provide the performance, security, and reliability that CIOs and CISOs require.

Yesterday’s complex networking technologies cannot reliably and efficiently support today’s and tomorrow’s demands. We need a simpler, faster, and less expensive solution, and SDN with gigabit broadband provides just that.

SD-WAN: Answering the Bandwidth Challenge

Layer on top of the SDN platform virtual network functions (VNFs) like software-defined wide area networking (SD-WAN) and businesses can build virtual private networks (VPNs) over internet transport between sites or between sites and data centers. SD-WAN enables application-specific control across the entire network or on a site-by-site basis.

Since Comcast Business launched our new SDN platform, ActiveCoreSM, and its first product, SD-WAN, just about a year ago, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with many CIOs, CTOs and other business executives about their networking needs and plans. There is tremendous interest across the board in SD-WAN, and for a good reason.

Consider how demands on networks have evolved. Video and web conferencing, mobility, the Internet of Things and other business imperatives are driving a skyrocketing—but wildly fluctuating—demand for bandwidth. Everyone needs the solution to meet those bandwidth demands, while simultaneously taking complexities and costs out of networking.

Think about the bandwidth implications these recent forecasts have for enterprise networks:

• There will be more than 55 billion Internet of Things devices by 2025, up from about 9 billion in 2017
• Annual global IP traffic will more than triple by the end of 2021, up from 6 zetabytes in 2016
• Wired devices will account for 37 percent of IP traffic by 2021, while Wi-Fi and mobile devices will account for 63 percent of IP traffic.

Upgrading and enhancing WAN capabilities to accommodate increasing bandwidth requirements is a labor-intensive and costly process with traditional hardware-centric architectures. SD-WAN’s software-driven approach makes it possible to re-program network traffic routing without the typical hardware changes, minimizing the need for additional equipment and expenses at sites.

It also reduces reliance on expensive legacy technologies such as MPLS, because it allows lower priority, less sensitive data to be sent over more cost-effective public internet connections. Private links can be reserved for mission-critical or particularly latency-sensitive traffic, and because SD-WANs are “application aware,” networks can be configured for applications to choose the best network path for optimal performance.

Hybrid: The Practical Solution

One pervasive concern that we hear about adopting SDN/SD-WAN is the reluctance to abandon significant investments in legacy networking architectures. But there is no need to rip and replace existing infrastructures to accommodate SD-WAN. In fact, we recommend a hybrid approach.

In a hybrid configuration, SD-WAN enables network traffic to be routed dynamically across the new broadband WAN or a legacy path. This approach allows businesses to begin unlocking the pricing benefits and capabilities of gigabit broadband while also creating time to comfortably migrate applications from the legacy service to SD-WAN.

As the first cable company to deliver a carrier-grade, gigabit-powered SDN platform for enterprises and other multi-site businesses, we believe this incremental approach to introducing the many benefits of SD-WAN without sacrificing existing investments is the right path for this exciting new networking journey. It’s also an approach that resonates well with IT and other business executives who are concerned about the bottom line.

Business Intelligence, The Internet of Things 2018
Cisco Global Cloud Index 2016-2021, February 2018
Cisco Visual Network Index 2016.