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How IoT, 5G & NFV will impact data center infrastructure

Previously published on Light Reading

It is no secret that mobile data traffic has been growing exponentially -- and there is really no end in sight. Smartphone penetration rates continue to increase, leading to more creation and consumption of bandwidth-chewing video services.

5G is on most telecom operators' radar, which will only accelerate this trend. 5G, expected to be a reality in the next few years, will provide significantly increased capacity that mobile subscribers will be all too happy to consume. This will require telecom operators to deploy more fiber to increase the capacity of their access and backhaul networks.

Additionally, the still-nascent Internet of Things (IoT) market is expected to get a jolt of energy with 5G. Adding to the billions of handheld devices will be tens of billions of connections from sensors, smart grids, smart homes, connected cars, and other as-yet-undefined sources -- most generating small amounts of data, but requiring extremely low latencies. The most recent Cisco VNI forecast shows that the number of connected devices will grow from 7.9 billion in 2015 to 11.6 billion in 2020 -- and much of that increase will come from IoT.

All that traffic needs to be processed somewhere, leading to increases in data center capacity. Cisco's Global Cloud Index estimates that global data center traffic was 5 zettabytes in 2016, and will grow to 10.4 zettabytes in 2019. This will force data center operators to not only dramatically scale their data center networking infrastructure, but do so quickly and cost-effectively. Automating operations is the only way this can happen.

At the same time, forward-thinking data center operators are adopting leaf-spine architectures to support high levels of East-West data center traffic. While more efficient than three-tier architectures, leaf-spine increases the number of connections that need to be tested and managed, with servers connected to top-of-rack (ToR) switches via copper, the ToR and leaf/spine switches connected via single-mode fiber. Redundant paths for backup are also fiber connections.

In the line-rate migration from 10G to 100G and future 200G-400G, these optical fiber links will most probably require tighter loss budget and reflectance requirements. One issue to consider, however, is that the web-scale companies have put price pressure on optical transceivers and pluggables, which is forcing vendors to de-feature some of their products. This can be somewhat risky, as these products become less intelligent as a result. To mitigate this risk, operators need to ensure that they can conduct rapid pass/fail tests on these connections, and that cleanliness of optical connectors is the norm everywhere.

Even before 5G hits in full force, telecom operators are beginning to adopt network functions virtualization (NFV). With NFV, functions that currently run on purpose-built hardware are virtualized and run on standard IT server platforms, and managed using IT automation systems. They have seen the flexibility and agility that the web-scale operators have achieved with a cloud model, and many expect that is how they will ultimately deliver their virtualized functions.

This shift requires a change not only in architecture, but also in development approach. "Waterfall" approaches are just too slow for keeping up with the rapid changes, so operators are looking at adopting the same DevOps approaches as the web-scale companies.

Of course, with all this change comes the potential for increased complexity and risk. Service assurance systems will need to adapt to a more rapid pace of innovation, and to a hybrid environment of physical and virtual resources. Automation will allow operators to move faster, but they cannot afford to do so recklessly. They will need to continue to be disciplined in their testing, leveraging the increased visibility and analytics capabilities of next-generation service assurance and monitoring systems. Because physical and virtual resources will be highly distributed to provide the quality of experience required, it will be critical to have an end-to-end view.

To fully benefit from the opportunities of 5G, IoT and NFV, operators must assure their infrastructure, services and processes throughout each stage of their virtualization, automation and DevOps journey.