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Technology Forecasts / Emerging Technologies

Gartner Says SDN Has Left the Building – Say Hello to Network Automation

In their annual hype cycle on on network technologies, Gartner lists the emerging technologies and an estimate of the timeframe in which they will reach the plateau of productivity. The latest hype cycle on enterprise networking labels Software-Defined Networks (SDN) as an obsolete technology. So on the surface, it would appear that SDN is now semi-officially dead.

While most natural scientists accept the Darwinian theories, the technology industry has traditionally been trying to defy evolution. Every 10-20 years, new revolutionary technology is born with the expectation that it will completely transform how a certain thing is being done. Assuming that Gartner's analysis of SDN is correct, it would appear that it has moved on to the nowhere land of promising technologies that never happened.

Yet when one thinks about it, the development of technologies tends to advance in waves of incremental improvements. A good example is electric cars. Most of the technologies needed to build them have been around for decades. However, it required a major catalyst like climate change to start their journey to the mainstream. And while the transformation of the automotive industry is getting into full swing now, there still are many familiar elements from the previous technology generations that make up a good 90% of the electric cars offered in the showrooms.

Networks are no different in this regard. While SDN may well be dead in the water, it does not necessarily mean that the school of thought it represents should be forgotten or obsoleted. Quite the opposite. SDN is all about programmability, agility and resulting service elasticity, which I believe will remain at the core of future networks.

If not SDN, then what?

When engineers fall in love with a specific technology, they often forget that most people do not care how something has been implemented. Instead, what they care about is convenience and utility. Like the slow uptake of IPv6 shows, even the most eloquent of technologies struggle to be adopted when they are not powered by a megatrend that drives concrete benefits to end-users.

Looking at the industry trends, the 2010s have been all about cloud computing and digital transformation. While networks remain an important piece of this puzzle, SDN, in its purest form, is too big a leap to take at once. Enterprises and service providers around the world have invested hundreds of billions into the network infrastructure they have today. The assumption that they would write off all these investments may err to the side of optimism.

That said, what we are seeing increasingly today are the features pioneered by Software-Defined Networks being implemented using alternate methods. Programmability leading to service agility, better performance characteristics, and lower latency are all key factors when new networks are being designed. In the cloud-native era, any new business infrastructure that lacks these abilities will not have a very long future ahead of it.

Instead of SDN, these architectures are being implemented using automation frameworks and orchestrators such as Ansible and Open Network Architecture Platform (ONAP). These technologies allow organizations to introduce automation to even existing network devices. Network automation reduces the largest cost of networks of today; downtime caused by manual mistakes. Automation is perhaps one of the highest yielding investments an entity running its network can make.

There are, of course, new use cases, especially in the enterprise space where emerging network technologies such as Software-Defined Wide Area Networks (SD-WAN) and virtual extensions of the enterprise network such as AWS VPC and Azure VNET make perfect sense. Both differ significantly from how enterprise networks have traditionally been run. While these technologies are still rather young, the chances are that the future of networks is in automation that allows both these new technologies and the traditional networks to co-exist side by side through the 2020s.


While SDN in the academic sense may not gain the traction it was initially hoped to, it has paved the way for network automation that is used on a much broader scale. Rather than forcing a tightly defined new network paradigm such as SDN upon service providers and enterprises, the industry is headed towards agnostic network automation frameworks that are driven by the business objectives rather than an academic definition. The technologies facilitating the transformation in this area are network automation frameworks such as Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP) and orchestrators such as Ansible.

Written by Juha Holkkola, Co-Founder and Chief Technologist at FusionLayer Inc. | 10/11/19 4:51 AM
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Inter-Satellite Laser Link Update

SpaceX satellite mesh with four laser terminals on each satelliteInter-satellite laser links (ISLLs) and electronically steerable flat panel antennas are critical technologies for constellations of low-Earth orbit (LEO) Internet-service satellites. Low-cost antennas are critical for the mass consumer market, and ISLLs are required for an effective Internet backbone in space. In an earlier post, we saw that progress is being made on antennas; this one looks at ISLLs.

The figure to the right is taken from a simulation of the first phase of SpaceX's planned broadband Internet service, Starlink. It shows 66 satellites in each of 24 53-degree orbital planes — a total of 1,584 satellites at an altitude of 550 km. Each satellite has four laser-communication terminals — two on the front and back and two on the sides. Since the front and back lasers link to satellites in the same orbital plane, they remain at the same place in the sky relative to each other while the side lasers must move to track one another. (To visualize the dynamic nature of the links between the constantly moving satellites, check this clip from the animated simulation).

When Elon Musk introduced his Starlink plan to prospective employees in 2015, he said his goal was to transport "a majority of long-distance Internet traffic" and "about 10 percent of local consumer and business traffic." He pointed out that satellites would have an advantage over terrestrial links since the speed of light is faster in space than through optical fiber, and fewer router hops would be needed to reach a distant location.

In addition to mitigating the digital divide by serving rural areas and small organizations, Musk and his competitors at OneWeb, Telesat, Amazon, and Leosat hope to service high-end, high-margin customers like enterprises, governments and maritime, airline and mobile phone companies. ISLLs are necessary for serving those lucrative high-end markets.

Initially, SpaceX proposed five ISLLs for each satellite — the fifth would have been a link to a satellite in the crossing plane, but last November they cut back to four. The fifth terminal would have been difficult to engineer because while the front, back and side-mounted terminals move slowly relative to each other, this simulation shows that satellites in crossing planes would have been traveling at 7.3 km/second relative to each other. Designing and manufacturing them would have taken time and money.

Furthermore, because of the 53-degree orbit inclination, about half the satellites are moving northeast and half are moving southeast at any time and place. That favors east-west links over north-south links, and since most of the lucrative low-latency, long-link traffic is in the northern hemisphere, they could not justify the cost or possible deployment delay. That is not to say they will not deploy them in the future. (Note that the initial five-link constellation was to orbit at an altitude of 1,100, not 550 km. Future plans call for constellations at 1,100 and 335-345 km, and there may be ISLLs between all of them).

Tesat laser communication roadmapBut even with 4-links, the terminals are still under development and will be expensive. At least two companies are working on ISLLs, Mynaric and Tesat.

Tesat already markets a laser communication terminal for LEO to ground transmission from CubeSats. Their CubeLCT is 9 x 9.5 x 3.5 cm, has a mass of 360 grams, consumes 8 Watts of power and communicates through the atmosphere to the Earth at 100 Mbps, with a 1 Mbps channel from the ground to LEO. They are developing an ISLL terminal based on that experience and, judging from the diagram shown here, they are pursuing laser communication between the ground, LEO and geostationary satellites.

Mynarc has announced that their ISLL terminal, the MLT-80, will be available in high-volume production this year and both companies are working on faster terminals. A while ago, I suggested that SpaceX would probably develop their own ISLL, but last March, Bulent Altan, a former SpaceX Vice President, joined Mynarc as co-CEO and a few days later Mynaric announced that they had raised $12.5 million from mystery constellation customer. Might the mystery company be SpaceX? Might it be Amazon, which entered the race late and has enough money to pay for terminals or even buy a stake in Mynaric or Tesat? We will know soon because test satellites equipped with Mynaric's terminals should be launched in late-2019.

Sources Tesat, MyarnicThe table on the right shows selected characteristics of their forthcoming ISSLs.

The SpaceX simulation shown above was for satellites with 4 ISLLs, but SpaceX launched their first 60 satellites without the ISLLs and, as far as I know, has not said if forthcoming satellites will have them or not. Arthur Sauzay, a French environment and space lawyer has pointed out that SpaceX argued for the allocation of radio frequencies for ISLs in a comment to a recent Whitehouse report on the impact of emerging technologies and their impact on non-federal spectrum demand, but they seem too large, heavy and slow to support a LEO network with long-distance, low-latency links.

OneWeb has decided not to use ISLs in their first constellation and will route traffic through terrestrial gateways. This decision seems to have been at least partially motivated by Russian insistence that satellite traffic passes through gateways within their borders. I imagine China and other nations will impose the same restriction.

Telesat remains committed to ISSLs, but say they will have the flexibility in their network-control system to route traffic coming to a country over satellite or terrestrial links. Erwin Hudson, vice president of Telesat LEO is confident that ISLs will be cheap enough to allow them to compete successfully with terrestrial fiber and 5G, offering fast, 30 ms latency broadband. They also have a $2.8 million contract to study inter-satellite laser links between their constellation and Blackjack, DARPA's 20 LEO satellite constellation and they are collaborating with Google on software, so we might see laser links between Telesat satellites and Google's balloons.

LeoSat is unique in that they are not pursuing the consumer and small organization markets, but are focused exclusively on large, high-end customers. They will provide fast, low latency, encrypted, reliable point-to-point connections to governments at up to 1.2 Gbps with latency under 50 ms and they have over $1 billion in pre-launch customer agreements. ISLLs are mandatory for the markets they are pursuing and since two geostationary satellite operators, Jsat and Hispasat, are investors in LeoSat, they may very well link to them in the future to offer a service similar to the SpaceDataHighway of Airbus and the European Space Agency.

China's Hongyun LEO broadband project is an ISLL unknown. China is doubtless working on laser communication in space, but I have no idea whether or not they will use it in their broadband constellation. Since they say the goal of the project is to serve rural China and they regulate Internet links to the outside world, Hongyun satellites may serve exclusively as "bent pipe" relays between rural locations and China's terrestrial network.

ISLLs will be needed if the Internet backbone in space is to compete with the terrestrial backbone and serve high-value applications. It seems that making cost-effective ISLLs for LEO constellations was harder than Elon Musk and others anticipated, but first production models are now on the horizon and they will improve over time.

For a copy of the PowerPoint presentation I use for teaching this topic click here.

Written by Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University | 9/6/19 11:44 AM
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