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Powering soft networks with SoC silicon

13 Aug 2012  | Zhihong Lin, Tom Flanagan, Pekka Varis

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The mobile Internet and the proliferation of smart devices have radically changed the way people use networks. Smart devices have enabled people to work and interact with each other anytime, anywhere. Mobile Internet consumer behavior is characterized by a thirst for new content, particularly location aware content, social network interaction, image sharing, posting and streaming video. Parallel to the well documented consumer bandwidth explosion, is an emerging trend called "the internet of things" where machine-to-machine (M2M) communication is used to monitor control and automate everything from industrial controls to security monitoring. Most of this M2M traffic is low volume (with the exception of video traffic), but the sheer number of devices that the network will need to track will impact the overall capacity. Together these trends are reshaping the landscape of the telecom network infrastructure and the application servers that provide content and machine-to-machine functionality.

The rapid increase in network demands is putting a heavy burden on today's network infrastructure, which requires significant upgrades and additional build out just to maintain today's user experience. What is needed to solve this problem is a more powerful networking building block that enables a softer, more dynamic network. The following is a look at the fundamental enabling technologies that will deliver the computing power, connectivity, bandwidth, performance and economics for tomorrow's soft network infrastructure.

Evolving network
The Internet has fundamentally reshaped today's network infrastructure. There are no longer separate voice and data networks, and Internet protocol (IP) is the dominant protocol for all interaction. The telecom core network continues to converge with the mobile and fixed line network. Wireless networks are moving from a macro0dominated structure to a heterogeneous network (HetNet) composed of a variety of cell sizes to improve coverage and capacity. Cloud based techniques are driving a renaissance in application design and data center construction. Cloud techniques are even being considered as an alternative to the field based radio access network (CRAN). The fixed line portion of the network is increasingly fiber optic based and data center connectivity is Ethernet dominated; moving toward 40/100Gbps to provide the capacity needed for present and future applications. By delving deeper into the new ways networks are being used, significant changes in several areas have been exposed.

First, the transport of video is now commonplace and traffic is not limited to just YouTube streams. Video chat and live event streaming are becoming more common. The impact is that real-time video is present on the upstream in much higher volumes than ever before. The traditional asymmetrical network, with much higher downlink data throughput than uplink, can throttle the uplink data traffic and degrade the real time video performance. Users are consuming video (and everything else) on a variety of devices with varying screen resolutions and processing capabilities. This creates a need for network or data center based transrating and transcoding of the video content to manage network bandwidth and to enable a smooth user-streaming experience.

Second, M2M connectivity coupled with wireless sensors are creating the "internet of things" which generate realtime data, allowing remote control and processing of information for various devices through the Internet. Instead of being predominantly downlink heavy applications, these machine applications typically produce information that is sent upstream or to peers, putting additional pressure on the networks. Traditionally these system control and data acquisition (SCADA) networks were stand alone, private and therefore expensive networks. Leveraging the Internet for connectivity brings the cost down and opens up many new applications for real-time sensing, monitoring and control.

M2M applications will have many more devices and many more transactions. Even though the data packet payload could be very small, the cumulative effect will be large and, in the case of video monitoring, the volume of traffic will be large. One alternative is to use smart endpoints and sensors that are able to preprocess the data they are collecting and to only send exceptions. This is particularily effective in video based systems that use video analytics. Near Field Communications (NFC) is another driver that will spawn millions , if not billions of M2M network attachments as retail terminals, vending machines and kiosks adopt NFC as their preferred payment system.

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