Google Loon’s SDN leapfrogs telco efforts, targeting satellite market

As with NFV, so with software-defined networking (SDN) – operators have good intentions, but are at the very early stages of large-scale implementation. So perhaps, as in other areas, telcos can learn from the web-scale industry, which is already a lot further along with SDN. And if Google is to be believed, it has already progressed to a whole new phase of SDN, which it calls a ‘network brain’ (or ‘temporospatial SDN’).

The latest study to indicate how gradually SDN is making inroads into the central operations of operators comes from IHS Markit, whose survey found that most service providers have started evaluating or deploying SDN, but that barriers remain. The highest ones relate to products not being trusted to be carrier-grade, and difficulties of integrating SDN with existing systems.

The company said most operators are still at “early stages of a long-term transition”, even though 87% of the sample expect to have evaluated SDN, or started to deploy it, by the end of this year.

Some of the motivations relate to new revenues, with SD-WAN leading in this category (78% say this would be a key deployment goal). Almost half (48%) are thinking more radically and cite network slicing, to generate new IoT services and revenues, as a key objective.

Others are more focused on cost reduction and efficiency, by using automation to reduce capex and opex. About three-quarters expect to use SDN to automate service delivery over time, while 65% expect to use it for automation of operations and management.

Michael Howard, head of research for carrier networks at the analyst firm, said the overriding aim is to achieve “end-to-end network and service management and control – with the goal of having a global view of network conditions across the various vendors’ equipment, network layers and technologies.” But he cautioned: “Still, carriers will learn that some avenues are not as fruitful as expected, and telecom equipment manufacturers and software suppliers may well invent new approaches that open up new applications.”

Meanwhile, Google’s new take on SDN has none of the caution of current deployers, and its “network brain” is coming out of Loon, its stablemate in the Alphabet group.

Salvatore Candido, head of engineering for Loon – which has developed and launched tethered balloons to deliver wireless connectivity in underserved areas – wrote in an introduction to the technology that temporospatial SDN “orchestrates Loon’s connectivity efforts. … It consumes forecasts of the future state of everything in our network — the balloons, the ground stations, even the weather — and then structures connections and routes data to optimize connection speeds, minimize latency, and avoid network disruptions.”

Loon’s SDN “functions autonomously on a massive scale to ensure people below our balloons have a connection to the Internet,” he concluded.

But this is not just about scaling up Loon’s own network and enhancing its operations as it expands its reach, in partnership with service providers on the ground. It could also sell the technology to other companies – to generate revenue, but more importantly to improve scalability and cost-effectiveness for any organization that might spread affordable Internet access to the ‘next billion’, and so open up new targets for Google’s core services. Loon, like other Google connectivity initiatives, is all about that strategic goal, not because the webscaler wants to become a telco.

Candido sees strong potential in the growing trend to deploy low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, which are cheaper and closer to the ground than traditional ‘birds’, but have control challenges because, like Loon, they move around. “Because of that motion, the network challenges present in Loon’s Internet balloon system will also be present for future NGSO [non-geostationary orbit] communications satellites,” Candido wrote. “The Loon SDN offers a promising solution to power these systems and create hybrid connectivity efforts to bring the reach of the Internet even further.”

Indeed, Loon has its first customer for Temporospatial SDN – satellite provider Telesat of Canada, which will use it to manage its fleet of low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, which will launch in 2022. Telesat says this deployment will support “capacity, speed, security, resiliency and low cost, with latency that is equal to, or better than, the most advanced terrestrial networks.” As such it could “accelerate 5G expansion, bridge the digital divide with fiber-like high speed services into rural and remote communities”, as well as improving performance for traditional satellite applications like maritime or emergency connectivity.

Candido summed up: “We see it as yet another opportunity for Loon to pursue our mission of connecting people everywhere by inventing and integrating audacious technology, in parallel to the commercial rollout of balloon-powered Internet.”