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Networks and Sky Chairs: How Dumb Pipes Are Relevant Again

At long last, the network matters again

American comedian Louis C.K. once observed on Late Night with Conan O'Brien that "everything is amazing and nobody is happy." And you know what? He's right.

He riffs about people complaining about the uncomfortable seats on a plane - despite the fact that they are partaking in the miracle of human flight.

"You are in a chair - IN THE SKY," he says.

But it is human nature to take such things for granted once they become the norm. Nowadays if you're watching YouTube and the high-resolution video struggles to buffer without pause, there's a good chance you'll skip that video and move on to another one, or another site. The same goes for any over-the-top or cloud-based services. If opening a file, email or video has even the slightest of lags, we are quick to jump to judgment on the service as "too slow."

The reason the complaints occur is because the network, for the most part, hasn't mattered in the minds of anyone for the better part of a decade.

It's so simple to forget where we'd be without the network. But imagine a world without it now and the chaos that might ensue should it be taken away.

If your email goes down or your connection to the server is severed, then you can kiss your productivity that day goodbye. Your whole working world comes to a standstill, and you are forced to revert to taking notes with pen and paper, and forced to only be able to communicate by phone - as long your phone is not running on VoIP.

Now let's take that and put it into a larger context.

There is literally one submarine cable that connects Bangladesh to the outside world. In 2012, that cable was severed and network connectivity was crippled. Simple things that frustrate us because they take a few seconds to send (an email, a picture message) were essentially halted on a national scale until the cable was fixed.

We are so used to being connected now that we are often ill-prepared for when we aren't. But ironically, it's this need to always be "on" that has led to the network fighting back into relevance - and then some.

The emergence of Software-Defined Networking, the mass adoption of Ethernet, a reliance on the cloud and the advent of the consumer "app" have altered our expectations of network connectivity and have driven the evolution of the network into an application in its own right.

The "dumb pipe" is dead, replaced with an on-demand network platform that combines compute, storage and "connectivity" to enable smarter service delivery.

This has been driven in large part by applications such as Netflix, Hulu and Dropbox. The role of the network in these instances is to ensure the customer experience is seamless, and it does so by managing the quantity of traffic and quality of the connection to ensure the integrity of the application. This makes the network more important than ever before - it needs to be smarter, and it is.

Those applications are, by Internet standards, "old news"; the Internet of Everything, the Internet of Things, whichever term you prefer, is what the network is working toward now. Recent Gartner research estimates that 26 billion "things" will be connected to the Internet by 2020.

The consumer benefits are pretty clear, but the Internet of Everything will also benefit organizations. A State Department of Transportation, for example, can take advantage of a fiber-optic network to support the use of smart devices that relay information on roadway conditions, such as traffic, weather, and speeds, in real-time and give travelers and transportation agencies the ability to respond accordingly.

To enable the mass proliferation of the Internet of Everything, the network will need to be more intelligent and programmable because the traffic will become more unpredictable. The network of the future, to be able to handle this demand, will need to scale to meet sudden spikes and do so seamlessly. Capacity will need to be on-demand, and the global network will need to intelligently re-route traffic along more efficient routes to do so.

For example, let's say viewers in New York wanted to binge-watch House of Cards, Season 2. That is well ahead of the prime time viewing for, say, Los Angeles. A programmable network will be able to take slack capacity from Los Angeles streamers during an off-peak period and "lend" it to New York to cater to the sudden spike in traffic, which would ensure Service Level Agreements are met and that the customer experience is maintained.

In addition, an intelligent network would be able to predict that spike before it happened and begin the process in advance.

Network operators are deploying this network of the future now. The idea that bandwidth can be accessed on-demand is close to fruition, with operators envisioning it along the same lines as compute-on-demand and storage-on-demand.

At long last, the network matters again. It matters again because we are forcing it to matter. We want a chair in the sky that's more comfortable, and we are on the cusp of getting it.

More Stories By Malcolm Loro

Malcolm Loro is Director of Industry Marketing at Ciena Corp., the network specialist. He has responsibility for assessing Ethernet Business Service market requirements, identifying and developing compelling new market opportunities and driving awareness of Ciena’s Ethernet solutions. He has over 20 years of experience in the telecommunications industry holding a number of previous engineering, product management and marketing positions at Catena Networks and Nortel Networks. Malcolm holds an Honors Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

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