Illusion is the Enemy of Progress

There are a lot of illusions in life, and thus not surprisingly in networking.  One of the illusions is that there is great opportunity to be had by generating on-demand high-capacity services.  Another, possibly related to the first, is that there’s a high value to vertically integrating the operation of networks from the service layer all the way down to optics.  Offer fiber bits for a day and it will make you rich.

Frankly, I like illusions.  I wish most of the fables I’ve heard were true.  That’s not going to make it happen, though, and these two example illusions are no exception.  We have to look at why that is, and what might happen instead.  In the process, we’ll expose the biggest illusion of all.

High-capacity connections exist because there are concentrations of users, resources, or both and they need to be connected.  Most such concentrations occur in buildings because neither people nor servers do well out in the open.  Buildings don’t come and go extemporaneously, and so the need to connect them doesn’t either.  Businesses network facilities because that’s where their assets are, and those facilities are persistent because they’re expensive, big, and largely nailed down.

I’ve surveyed users for decades on their communications needs.  One thing that’s been clear all along is that site network capacity is a game of averages.  You get enough to support needs and even bursts on the average, and you make do.  If you were offered extemporaneous bandwidth like many propose, what you’d do is to run the math on what it would cost to continue to play the averages game, versus buying only what you need when you need it.  If you found that averages were cheaper, you’d stay the course.  Which means that on-demand capacity is not a revenue opportunity, but a revenue loss opportunity.  If you get lucky, they don’t buy it.  Does that sound like a good business plan to you?

There are situations where burst capacity is useful, but for the network operator these are found inside existing or emerging services and not at the retail level.  CDNs can always use a burst here and there, and the same will be increasingly true in evolving cloud-based services (what I’ve called point-of-activity empowerment).  In these examples, though, we’re seeing operators deciding to augment capacity and not selling on-demand services, so there’s no need to couple service-layer facilities to transport.

The service-to-transport coupling thing seems to be an invention of SDN proponents.  The sad truth is that our industry is almost entirely PR-driven.  People say what they need to say to get “good ink”, and so when something gets publicity there’s a bandwagon effect.  SDN and OpenFlow were really aimed at L2/L3 handling, but we spent a lot of time shoehorning OpenFlow principles into optics.  Think about it; here’s an architecture based on packet-level forwarding being applied to an opaque trunk or wavelength.

The worst thing is that it’s not needed, and in fact counterproductive.  As you go lower in the protocol stack you move away from “connecting” into “aggregating”, which means that your facilities are shared.  So here we are, proposing that service buyers could spin up some optics to give themselves a burst of speed?  How does that impact the capacity plans on which optical networks are based?

Every layer of a network needs to obtain service and a SLA from the layer below.  The responsibility for reconfiguration of connectivity or realignment of resources at a layer has to be within the layer itself, where the capacity plan under which the SLA is valid is known.  You don’t vertically integrate control of network resources.  You integrate a stack of services that create a retail SLA by enforcing capacity plans where aggregation takes place.  Services controlling multi-tenant resources is anarchy; everyone will want to go to the head of the line.

Why then, if so much of the view of future services is nonsense, do we hold to it?  The answer lies in that great master, central, illusion I mentioned.  The problem is that we are conditioned to think of the future of services and networks in terms of the present.  Our vision of NGN is that there isn’t going to be any—that the future network will simply be a bigger version of the current one.  We’ll use capacity exactly as we do now, but more of it.  Crap.

As bandwidth cheapens, it becomes useless except as a carrier of services.  Higher capacity introduces the potential for agility, to be sure, but we don’t have agile locations.  What changes things is mobility.  If we forget networking sites and start networking people, we get a completely different demand profile.  A single person moving about in a mobile world and asking their “personal digital assistant” for help with this or that is a very bursty user of information technology, unlike a group of fixed people in an office.  Their service could look different.

Not different in terms of “communications” though.  Sitting or standing or walking, they have the same voice and the same texting fingers.  What’s different is their information needs and the optimum way to satisfy them.  What shapes the future into something new and different and interesting is that workers and consumers will be empowered individually at the points of their activity.  That new model encourages us to view not networking differently, but IT differently.

In the future, computing and information is part of a fabric that supports movement of processing and capacity like the tides.  When people want to know something, we assemble what’s needed to answer their question and then send them the answer.  All the work is done in the IT fabric, all the connection dynamism that exists is within that fabric.  Old-fashioned connection services don’t change much, but that’s a good thing because enormous downward price per bit can’t be survived if you sell bits, but is essential if you’re selling a fabric of knowledge and decision support.

The cloud, as we conceive it today, is another stupid illusion, not because cloud computing is stupid but because we’re thinking stupidly about it.  This is not about utility computing; there’s no profit in it in the long run.  IaaS is hosted server consolidation, and the only reason anyone would “move an application to the cloud” is to get a lower price.  You make markets vanish to a point with that kind of thinking.  You certainly don’t build massive investment that change the nature of computing or networking.  The cloud will be transformational because we build the cloud with a transformational mission, and it’s that mission that will transform networking.  Not by transforming the services we now buy, but by giving us new service models at the information and knowledge level that we can only glimpse today.

Whenever somebody talks about new service opportunities, ask them how the same bit-pushing with a different pricing model is “new”.  Tell them you know what “new” really means.  Break some illusions, break some vendor hearts, and break out into the future.