Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Deployment, R&D, and protocols

In my last entry I discussed why the last mile is a bandwidth bottleneck while the backhaul network is a utilization bottleneck. Since I was discussing the access network I did not delve into the core, but it is clear that the core is where the rates are highest, and where the traffic is the most diverse in nature.

Based on these facts, we can enumerate the critical issues for deployment and R&D investment in each of these segments. For the last mile the most important deployment issue is maximizing the data-rate over existing infrastructures, and the area for technology improvement is data-rate enhancement for these infrastructures.

For the backhaul network the deployment imperative is congestion control, while development focuses on OAM and control plane protocols to minimize congestion and manage performance and faults.

For the core network the most costly deployment issue is large-capacity, fast and redundant network forwarding elements, along with rich connectivity. Future developments involve a huge range of topics, from optimized packet formats (MPLS) through routing protocols, to management plane functionality.

A further consequence of these different critical issues is the preference of protocols used in each of these segments. In the last mile efficiency is critical, but there no little need for complex connectivity. So physical-layer framing protocols rule. As there may be the need for multiplexing or inverse multiplexing, one sometimes sees non-trivial use of higher-layer protocols. However, these are usually avoided. For example, Ethernet has long had an inefficient inverse multiplexing mechanism (LAG), but this is being replaced with the more efficient sub-Ethernet PAF (EFM bonding) alongside physical layer (m-pair) bonding for DSL links.

In the backhaul network carrier-grade Ethernet has replaced ATM as the dominant protocol, although MPLS-TP advocates are proposing it for this segment. Carrier-grade Ethernet acquired all the required fault and performance mechanisms with the adoption of Y.1731, while the MEF has worked hard in developing the needed shaping, policing, and scheduling mechanisms.

In the core the IP suite is sovereign. MPLS was originally developed to accelerate IP forwarding, but advances in algorithms and hardware have made IPv4 forwarding remarkably fast. IP caters to a diverse set of traffic types, and the large number of RFCs attests to the richness of available functionality.

Of course it is sometimes useful to use different protocols. A service provider that requires out-of-footprint connectivity might prefer IP backhaul to Ethernet. An operator with regulatory constraints might prefer a pure Ethernet (PBBN) core to an IP one. Yet, understanding the nature and constraints of each of the segments helps us weigh the possibilities.