Friday, February 10, 2012

Some musings for old networkers ...

Back in 1999 I was working in South America. Most service providers in the region were operating TDM and FR networks and the hot technology they were evolving to was ATM. It promised many good things, including a true converged network capable or transporting data, voice and video. Of course many at the time were not thinking of packet data (nor packet video), but actual PCM voice channels over CES.

Why am I bringing this back today? Well, because back in those days I remember having so many conversations with SPs about delivering virtual private networks using IP technology, or in fact, a nascent technology that leveraged an IP control plane: tag switching, which evolved into standard MPLS. For Cisco, this was a key differentiation in the Stratacom product line of ATM switches.

But most people in those carriers were very circuit orientated. The easiest way to setup a private network for them was to mimic the TDM world of circuits and channels ... with a PVC - or a mesh of them.

It is funny to see that, in essence, today's latest and greatest solutions for implementing virtual private networks (network virtualization) still relies on circuits in some sort of way ... IP overlays now.

The kings of the ATM SP market at the time in the region were Nortel and NewBridge. Cisco had important franchises as well. SPs were looking for ways to scale better the circuit based ATM backbones to deliver services to end users (some were thinking about going into households even, which eventually happen through the earlier phases of ADSL deployments in early 2000s).

How to build and manage all those thousands of PVCs? ATM proposed a neat way ... SVCs! VCs which were created by a software layer and at the request of the application! ... Good things were about to happen. And then it came the fierce competition ...

Nortel and many others were pushing for PNNI, a routing protocol plane, network based, which would run distributed in all ATM switches in a hierarchical topology. PNNI was essentially a routing protocol for establishing ATM VCs. Good about it? It was standard ... promised vendor interoperability and in fact there were bake-offs to prove it and so on ... Cisco was betting on PNNI and actually had a pretty robust stack implemented on its LS1010s.

NewBridge on the other hand had a radically different approach. They had a very strong management solution (the 46020) coming along from the TDM and FR ages. Essentially for them, a software running on a server would control the setup and management of PVCs and SVCs alike! ... better, it could interface through APIs with an application layer for, say, deliver IP and VoD services to ADSL consumers for instance ...

The "SDN" approach to managing ATM never worked, it failed to scale and proved to be a lock-in for customers who could never think to imagine running an ATM switch that was not NewBridge.

Of course, the end of the story I just related is well know ... ATM and PNNI slowly died, being overruled by IP and MPLS. NewBridge was acquired by Acaltel (which actually reused its 46020 for managing the 7050/7040s boxes and did well with it), and Nortel ... well ... sorry for them.

I can't help to think of this and see some analogies with recent trends and announcements in the networking industry. By no means I pretend the end could be similar though ... much have changed in the compute industry in particular to help scale a controller managing overlay networks. But it is fun to think of the irony of things, and how circuits come back to haunt us IP heads ...

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