Power of the packet
How packet became king
Our society is now totally dependent on packet communications. Even before COVID-19 our society had moved to become reliant on “massive communications”, our current situation just shows how much packet communications can do for us, and indeed highlights some of its current limitations.As an example, I live in a rural area with 10Mbps-15Mbps downstream bandwidth and a few Mbps upstream. In my house I have virtually no mobile coverage and just one bar if I go into my garden. In my home today my children are doing remote learning whilst running independent video calls to class mates (via the WiFi). At the same time, both my wife and I are working from home and of course participating in video calls and delivering webinars. Later this evening we will be making video calls to my parents in the Republic of Ireland my wife’s parents in Northern England and my sister-in-law in Peru.
It will be of no surprise to you to find out that my home network is creaking at the seams!
And of course, people in the houses around me are doing the same or streaming films from various OTT suppliers, putting huge pressure on the capacity of the Wide Area Network connecting to the various servers and applications in the core of the network.
It is only the power of packet, and its shared service infrastructure, that makes the scenario described possible at all. The statistical multiplexing made possible by the packet queueing mechanisms make it possible to support many, many applications over very limited bandwidth connectivity. Admittedly, in the example given above, even the agility of packet cannot work miracles and intermittently the connectivity for the applications fails, as packet just aren’t serviced regularly enough to keep the service alive. You can only stretch a bit of elastic so far before it breaks!
The ubiquity of packet is important
Packet transport has played a key role in providing us with the rich diversity of services and applications that we have today. This because about 20 years ago, connectivity to the internet became so important that the language the internet spoke, Ethernet in the LAN and TCP/IP in the WAN, became a defacto standard for all services and applications. This consolidation around a ubiquitous set of packet transport technologies has allowed application developers to focus on developing applications rather than worrying about how to make them work on multiple transport mediums. Similarly network operators have been able to focus on deploying a transport network optimized for packet transport. It is my belief that this ubiquity has driven an acceleration in the rate applications have been brought to market.
What packet has enabled over the last 20 to 30 years
It is incredible to think that just 20 or 30 years ago video calls were viewed as science fiction and AT&T, to name just one Service Provider, had tried and failed on multiple occasions since the mid-60s to make a video telephony service a reality. Video calls are now viewed as normal, and virtually every platform offers them.
Streaming of high definition movies is now normal and low cost, it is just few dollars/euros per month for Disney plus and their whole back catalogue. With Google’s Stadia platform, we are starting to see the emergence of cloud gaming and at the same time we see the start of AR and VR.
On the business side, applications have now moved to the cloud and critical and strategic industries are looking to become smart (smart cities, smartgrid, smart transport, indeed smart everything) by autonomously processing vast amounts of data from a vast number of sensors embedded in the network.
What does the near future hold?
By 2023 it is estimated that two thirds of the global population will be internet users most of the traffic they consume being video based. This will only grow, with higher quality video and the addition of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).
On the other side we see the rise of the machines with more than 3 networked devices per human on the planet of which half of these are machines talking to machines – scary if you believe in the premise of Skynet and I Robot !!
Up to now packet transport has mainly been about providing best effort broadband connectivity, and innovation focused on increasing capacity has successfully moved fixed broadband connectivity from 512kbit/s in 2000 up to a whacking 1Gbit/s today, if you can get FTTP and are willing to pay for the full bandwidth. Mobile broadband capacity has increased at a similar rate.
What I see for the 2020s and beyond, is packet transport itself making a major evolutionary step. Packet transport has to retain all of its agility but it must also have the ability to be deterministic enough to guarantee performance characteristics like reliability, bandwidth, latency and latency variation. In doing this, not only will it be able to support the new services like AR and VR, remote surgery etc it will also finally allow network operators to retire the old circuit switched networks they still use for voice, and mission critical connectivity.
In my next blog, “Can packet change its spots” I will address how the current situation might accelerate this need for deterministic packet and what is required to allow operators to succeed in this environment.
What is clear is that communications will continue to grow exponentially and its influence on our society become ever more pervasive. Packet communication networks are essential to enable this insatiable demand.