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BT trial of SDN switches could boost Dell’s profile in the telco market

Dell’s acquisition of EMC last year brought it firmly into the world of software-defined networking (SDN) and virtualization, but both companies have often struggled to cross the gulf between their data center heartlands and the telco market. A trial with BT, focused on open, disaggregated switching, could give Dell the kind of jewel that will boost its standing with carriers, and help it raise its game against HPE in this sector.

Programmable, virtualized and white box switches are seen by operators like AT&T – which has developed one with Bigfoot Networks – as an important way to hack away at a major area of network cost, while creating a platform that can support agile service delivery. Dell EMC and the UK’s BT have developed a proof of concept (PoC) for disaggregated switching, which is now being trialled at the telco’s R&D campus, Adastral Park, where it will be measured against traditional specialized switching hardware with integrated software.

This effort echoes a recent alliance between HPE and Big Switch, although that was not so specifically targeted at telco data centers. This is an important point – though initiatives like CORD (Central Office Rearchitected as a Datacenter) envisage the operator eventually running its network functions and application on just the same server infrastructure as any other enterprise, in reality that day is a long time ahead. Telco networks have very specialized requirements if they are to support their huge (and growing) device numbers and demanding peaks of performance optimally.

So Dell, HPE, Cisco and the other data center and network virtualization providers are increasingly working to optimize their platforms for this lucrative, and eager, customer segment – chased all the while by the telco network experts like Nokia and Ericsson, which have the opposite challenge, to become overnight sensations in data center platforms (Huawei is the one which best spans both worlds).

In the BT trial, merchant processors and commercial or open source system software will replace specialized switches, not only leading to lower cost of ownership, but also supporting programmability, and therefore the flexible and dynamic delivery of services across fixed and mobile networks. That, in turn, will be a key enabler for network slicing and a wide range of network-on-demand models.

The telco expects the Dell EMC disaggregated switches to have several advantages when they are put through their paces against the traditional switches.
They can be managed flexibly using the NETCONF protocol and YANG models, which support rapid configuration changes when new services require that.
They should be well-suited to support new use cases, including instant activation of Ethernet circuits from a third party, and delivery of real time network operational data to help an operator optimize user or service experience on the fly.
They have potential to support other programmable use cases such as bandwidth calendaring (adjusting the bandwidth of an Ethernet circuit according to customer needs via a pre-determined calendar), or automatic delivery of network telemetry data to customers or partners.

Neil McRae, BT’s chief architect, said the trial would allow the operator to “make informed decisions about the role this kind of solution will play in the dynamic network services of the future”, adding that “agility and programmability, maximizing the benefits of SDN, are key to our future network evolution.”

Tom Burns, general manager of Dell EMC Networking, Enterprise Infrastructure & Service Provider Solutions, said: “The service provider network of tomorrow cannot be built on yesterday’s technology.”

The UK telco, which has re-entered the mobile space via its acquisition of EE, has shown a high level of interest in driving lower cost, software-driven approaches to the next generation network. It is part of Facebook’s disruptive Telecom Infra Project and is working with TIP at Adastral Park, on applying quantum computing to networks and critical communications.

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