Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bandwidth and utilization bottlenecks

Let us consider an end-to-end data transport path that can be decomposed into the following segments
* end-to-end path = LAN + access network + core network + access network + LAN
There may be distinct service providers for each of these segments, thus many different decompositions may make sense from the business perspective. Yet, the identity of the access network, and of its components
* access network = last mile + backhaul network
are useful constructs for more fundamental reasons.

These reasons emanate from the concepts of bandwidth and bandwidth utilization (the ratio of required to available bandwidth). In general :
1) LAN and core have high bandwidth, while the last mile has low bandwidth.
2) LAN and core enjoy low utilizations, while the backhaul network suffers from high utilization.
Let's see why.

LANs are the most geographically constrained of the segments, and thus physics enables them to effortlessly run at high bandwidth. On the other hand, LANS handle only their owner’s traffic, and thus the required bandwidth is low as compared with that available. And if the bandwidth requirements increase, it is a relatively simple and inexpensive matter for the owner to upgrade switches or cabling. So utilization is low.

Core networks have the highest bandwidth requirements, and are geographically unconstrained. This is indeed challenging, however, the challenge is actually financial rather than physical. Physics allows transporting without error any quantity of digital data over any distance; it just extracts a monetary penalty when both bandwidth and distance are large. Since it is the core function of core network operators to provide this transport, the monetary penalty of high bandwidth is borne. Whenever trends show that bandwidth is becoming tight, network engineering comes into play – that is, either some of the traffic is rerouted or the network infrastructure is upgraded.

Shannon’s capacity law universally restricts the bandwidth of DSL, radio, cable or PON links used in the last mile. However, utilization is usually not a problem as customers purchase bandwidth that is commensurate with their needs, and understand that it is worthwhile to upgrade their service bandwidth as these needs increase.

On the other hand, the backhaul network is a true utilization bottleneck. Frequently the access provider does not own the infrastructure, and purchases bandwidth caps instead. Since the backhaul is shared infrastructure, overprovisioning these rings or trees would seriously impact OPEX overhead. Even when the infrastructure is owned by the provider, adding new segments involves purchasing right-of-way or paying license fees for microwave links.

So, the sole bandwidth bottleneck is the last mile, while the sole utilization bottleneck is the backhaul network. Understanding these facts is critical for proper network design.