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Network appliances in the 100G era

Due in large part to the explosion of mobile devices and the advent of the Internet of Things, the world produces 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day, according to IBM. Networks are managing this data from more end points than ever, and at faster speeds – up to 100Gbps. The penetration of 100G networks is rising sharply as the need to support high-bandwidth services continues to grow.

In a recent survey conducted by Heavy Reading, network equipment providers (NEPs) and communications service providers (CSPs) weighed in on both traditional hardware and virtualised network appliances. The survey results confirm that industry players are very interested in both developing and deploying virtualised network appliances. One of the key findings of the survey is that the market for network appliances is strong; 47 per cent of respondents ranked network appliances as essential, while another 39 per cent ranked them as valuable. However, there is a fundamental transition taking place in the network appliance space, driven by increased transport network throughput and the impact of virtualisation.

Enterprises have been hard at work in the last three years to establish software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualisation (NFV), with dozens of successful proofs of concept and even limited-scale network deployments. Another key survey finding is that the impact of NFV and SDN on network appliances will be profound and positive overall. The impact is considered positive because the survey input clearly shows that, with virtualised network appliance growth on the rise, both NEPs and CSPs see a continued need for network appliances in a 100G virtualised world.

Huge growth, short timeframe

As 100G is deployed, data network throughput is increasing at all levels. This will lead to a dramatic increase in the number of 100G transport networks. For example, CSPs forecast 100G data rates penetration in access networks to grow from nine per cent today to 58 per cent by the end of 2018 – a mere three years away. In the same time period, growth for core transport networks is projected from today’s 22 per cent to 75 per cent. CSPs also anticipate growth in penetration from 14 per cent to 71 per cent in metro networks.

To put a fine point on it, 2018 is the watershed year for all transport networks from a service delivery perspective because they will have much greater throughput to support high-bandwidth services. Heavy Reading attributes this sharp growth spike to the preliminary impact of early 5G network upgrades to support the high capacity this new technology will consume.

Virtual acceleration

Providers see the writing on the wall and are moving fast. Within the next calendar year, CSPs that rely primarily on 1G (39 per cent) and 10G (36 per cent) technology in access networks plan to deploy 10G technology, largely at the expense of 1G. By mid-2016, CSPs forecast that the penetration of 1G gear will experience a steep drop from 39 per cent to 13 per cent, while 10G will experience strong growth from 36 per cent to 47 per cent. 100G adoption will occur from there, experiencing the greatest increase from 2017 to 2018.

What’s worth noting is that NFV and SDN will depend heavily on hardware acceleration, which is driving the development and deployment of a new class of virtualised hardware acceleration platforms and appliances. The functions that NEPs and CSPs see as the most desirable areas are acceleration of virtual:

• functions (57 per cent)
• switching (53 per cent)
• appliances (43 per cent)

Within a 12-24 month window and with those priorities in view, 73 per cent of network operators plan to deploy virtualised appliances, and 71 per cent of vendors plan to develop and deliver virtualised appliances to market within this same window. In fact, the first wave of virtualised management and security appliances functions has already been developed and deployed.

About a third of respondents have already virtualised the most mature applications, such as firewalls, network and performance monitoring, and intrusion prevention systems. The top three technical challenges concerning carriers in the survey were security, throughput and latency, which is not surprising considering the looming 100G tide ready to break on their shores.

Performance, though, is still an issue, as virtualised solutions are currently struggling to contend with 10G speeds. 100G means 10 times more data delivered 10 times faster with 10 times less time to react. Can the current performance trajectory deliver this kind of improvement by 2018?

Rethinking current standards

Vendors are in the same race as providers, and they only now are releasing the physical appliances that can support 100G. The challenge for 2018 is to successfully virtualise these physical appliance solutions and still maintain the same performance and reliability. Fortunately, the vast majority of appliances are already based on the same standard server platforms forming the infrastructure basis for NFV, and 100G appliances are no exception. The issue is ensuring that the right data input/output capacity is available to handle 100G speeds and data volumes when making the transition to NFV infrastructures.

BYOD, IoT, Big Data: the brave new world is interconnected, generating astronomical volumes of data, and sending it to networks at unprecedented speeds. Heavy Reading’s survey reveals that CSPs and NEPs value and rely on both traditional hardware appliances and virtualised appliances to help them optimise the performance of their NFV-enabled virtualised networks. Hybrid infrastructures are a potential short-term solution, but the real benefits of virtualisation will not be fully realised until appliances are fully virtualised. This will require a rethink of currently accepted SDN and NFV reference hardware implementations. The motivation is the impending tide of data that 100G will produce and with which SDN and NFV will have to contend.

To learn more, download the report here.

Dan Joe Barry, VP Positioning and Chief Evangelist, Napatech

Image Credit: Korn / Shutterstock