One of the more significant, yet often unappreciated, elements of making the transition to managing networks at scale in the age of the cloud is the crucial role commercial hardware and merchant-grade silicon will play.
Thanks to the separation of packet forwarding and control, it’s now feasible to employ industry-standard processors to build next-generation networks as envisioned by AT&T as the User Defined Network Cloud. When coupled with a sophisticated external controller, a simple network element based on merchant silicon can now functionally compete with a much more sophisticated element. As a result, special purpose network elements such as firewalls, load distributors, and various types of gateways will all soon become special purpose software running on commercial processors and merchant-grade silicon. That not only makes it easier to add new networking functionality while reducing costs, but it also prevents AT&T and its customers from ever getting locked into a specific set of hardware technologies.
Create and modify networks in near real time
Because control is now established by distributing a set of software packet switches, also known as virtual switches, and then connecting them with overlay tunnels, sophisticated network fabrics can be created and modified in near real time. The use of software-defined network (SDN) protocols to provide virtual networking services within a network fabric replaces appliances with applications and provides customers with more control of private LAN capabilities. In fact, customers will soon be able to use SDN to stitch native, overlay, and WAN networks together on demand.
These WANs will consist of a mix of private leased lines and Internet connections making use of router and switching software functions that will be interconnected via the AT&T Intelligent Optical Network.
This network comprises Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing (DWDM) technology and Intelligent Optical Switches. DWDM increases bandwidth by assigning incoming optical signals to specific frequencies within a designated frequency band and then multiplexing the resulting signals out onto the fiber. Intelligent Optical Switches enable quick recovery from network failure as well as automatic provisioning. Each switch has a comprehensive map of all available routes across the network and can automatically reroute traffic when needed.
Rather than asking customers to wait months for a high-speed circuit to be provisioned, AT&T’s goal is to provide bandwidth on demand via the AT&T User Defined Network Cloud environment through “point-and-click provisioning.” A key technology for providing this capability is Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS), which allows for the marriage of IP to Layer 2 networking technologies by overlaying a protocol on top of IP networks.
Build new, more efficient, scalable networks on existing equipment
Once network resources essentially become instances of virtualization software running on commodity hardware, customers will be able to build new types of networks that can be instantiated on shards of existing equipment. By using that physical network element more efficiently, it becomes possible to both defragment leftover capacity in existing deployments while reducing the number of physical devices in the network. Rather than rely on a complex matrix of discrete components, these capabilities can now be delivered in integrated “pod containers” composed of commodity servers and merchant silicon that will make it much simpler to scale out network capacity and services.
There is even evidence to suggest that, going forward, merchant silicon providers will soon be able to provide efficient, scalable SDN fabrics. AT&T looks forward to these and other advances in commodity silicon that should make networking more accessible to all by abstracting much of the underlying complexity away from developers of next-generation cloud applications.
These and other User Defined Network Cloud advances should finally simplify networking in a way that not only scales network services faster, but also provides the added benefit of putting an end to vendor lock-in once and for all.