The Network of the Future

By: Jesse Cryderman

“The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.”

When one-hit-wonder Timbuk3 sang their trademark song in 1986, cellular communication was in its infancy, email and text messaging didn’t exist, and there was no commercialized public Internet. If applied to technology, this song could have not been more correct. Five years later, digital cellphone technology was deployed, the Internet went international and the digital age sparked an unprecedented era of innovation.

The pace has quickened. Some of greatest innovation that has ever occurred in the telecommunications space is happening right now. The demand for mobile data and pervasive access to the Internet has upended the traditional business model for communications service providers (CSPs). Consumers spend more time on their smartphones engaged in non-communication activities than in communicating, and average mobile network speeds in developed regions are substantially speedier than the terrestrial networks just five years ago.

The demand for faster, easier-to-manage, and more efficient networks has continued, unabated. While many core functions will likely remain as the network evolves, the network of the future looks very different than it does today. Future networks will be able to scale up and down with demand; be programmed to change instead of physically manipulated; self-optimize traffic, bandwidth and content; and, if it breaks, it can fix itself. It will also shuttle bits of data 100-1000 times faster than today, and will do so with less power and greater efficiency. There are many technologies contributing to this evolution; but, in particular, network virtualization technologies, LTE-x, and 5G are providing the foundation for the network of the future.

Virtualization technologies

Virtualization technologies will change the network as we know it into a dynamic, flexible, and scalable platform for launching new services, adapting to traffic patterns, and delivering a superior Quality of Experience (QoE) at a reduced cost. These virtualization technologies are also changing the ways in which communications businesses will be staffed and managed. 

Network evolution is being dominated by two significant innovations today: software defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV). Both stand to fundamentally change the way networks and services are designed, monitored and managed.

In a nutshell, SDN delaminates the data and control planes of the network and NFV virtualizes the functional elements of the network—routers, switches, firewalls—and expresses these functions as programs that run on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) IT hardware. While they are distinct technologies, the two work together in concert to turn the network into an infinitely programmable dynamic mesh, versus a hardware-based static map. In essence, SDN is the network admin gone virtual whereas NFV is the gear gone virtual.

Together, SDN and NFV promise to deliver a whole new world of networking, although both are still in their infancy. SDN lacks open and broadly adopted standards, although standards development work is being performed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Open Networking Foundation (ONF). Since October 2012, NFV standardization has been driven by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). In October 2013, ETSI published the first round of NFV specifications as well as an extensive survey of potential NFV use cases that is required reading.

Notably in May NTT, Alcatel-Lucent and Fujitsu demonstrated a proof-of-concept of the Virtual Network Platform-as-a –service (VNPaaS) technology to the ETSI NFV ISG body in Japan.

As seen in the activities of ETSI NFV ISG, which are designed to take advantage of virtualization technologies in telecoms, more and more traditional network functions are being realized through software on general-purpose hardware. The progress of Network Functions Virtualization enables more flexible and faster development and configuration changes of the network.


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