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VMblog Expert Interview: Hugh Kelly of Volta Networks Talks Networking, 5G and Cloud-native Routing

interview volta networks hugh kelly 

While routers are the backbone of the Internet, how networks are architected and the services delivered in the 5G era are forcing a shift from expensive routers based on proprietary hardware.
 
Major global carriers, from Telefónica to AT&T to NTT, are breaking free from vendor lock-in using a combination of white-box switches, cloud-native routing, and open-source routing software.  They are embracing this new technology and testing software-based disaggregated routers as a way to reduce costs, boost bandwidth, and support new functionality to help them improve their network economics.
 
While routers will be around for a while, is this the beginning of the shift away from proprietary legacy routers – starting at the network edge?  To dive in deeper and learn more, VMblog sat down with industry expert, Hugh Kelly, Vice President of Marketing, Volta Networks.

VMblog:  To kick things off, can you provide a little background on Volta Networks?

Hugh Kelly:  Volta Networks is a startup that provides a cloud-native routing platform that reduces total cost of ownership by 90% compared to legacy routers, but also delivers significant scale and flexibility in virtual routing. We are based in Boston and have a development office in Barcelona. The company was founded by Dean Bogdanovic, a former Distinguished Engineer at Juniper Networks. Our company is growing quickly and we are looking to hire significantly this year. We're a member of the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), which brings together a community of organizations dedicated to building a better infrastructure for global telecom networks, and we are actively involved in TIP's Disaggregated Open Routers (DOR) initiative and its ongoing Disaggregated Cell Site Gateway (DCSG) trials. The name Volta Networks comes from the Italian word voltare which means to turn.

VMblog:  What exactly is cloud-based routing?

Kelly:  In cloud-based routing, the control plane runs on any public, private or hybrid cloud. It's a standards-based approach that is hardware agnostic - so we can work with any open networking device which allows routing deployments in places where legacy routers are cost prohibitive - increasingly at the new service edge of networks. Scalability is also critical, and our platform supports up to 255 virtual routers on a single open networking device, typically a white box switch, giving operators tremendous flexibility in how they design their networks and services.

VMblog:  And how is your approach to routing different than traditional routing vendors?

Kelly:  Our approach is different because we are using a combination of cloud-native routing with white-box switches, delivering that in carrier-grade networks at scale. The traditional, legacy approach does routing "in the box" using proprietary software and hardware. If you need more routing control plane capacity, you have to buy more routers which are expensive, so it restricts routing to only certain network locations.

Among routing companies, we are different in that we are a cloud-based platform that can scale the number of virtual routers on a single switch, unlike a Network Operating System (NOS) which is limited to one router per switch. We use industry standard routing protocols for full multi-vendor interoperability, but unlike a NOS, we run the control plane in the cloud which gives customers significant scale in processing and deployment flexibility. That allows the network operator to run many virtual routers on a single switch.

VMblog:  5G will bring much higher data rates to consumers and businesses, and help make things like IoT, autonomous vehicles and smart cities a reality.  Are service provider networks ready to deliver 5G on a widespread basis?

Kelly:  While the compute and storage markets have gone through virtualization revolutions, networking and the basic routing architecture hasn't really changed in 20 years. But network demands have changed dramatically, with the need to support 5G and provide enough bandwidth for streaming services, IoT and more and more connected devices. Some service providers might be able to accommodate this extra load in the short term if they already have high-density routers, but the cost structure is not viable long term - buying and maintaining traditional routers are expensive. At the same time, service providers want to avoid proprietary vendor lock-in. Service providers are reaching a critical inflection point where they are either not going to be able to support 5G effectively, or they are going to have a significant increase in costs, which will not work for their current business model. Something has to change. This is why organizations such as TIP and major carriers such as AT&T are exploring new approaches based on open networking.

VMblog:  How do networks, and routing, need to change to be able to deliver 5G?

Kelly:  Service provider networks need a more open, flexible approach that can scale up quickly and deliver high levels of bandwidth and performance while at the same time keeping costs down. It's time for a new model that can make this happen. By putting routing control plane software and processing in the cloud, it makes it possible to scale up the network faster and less expensively, because you reduce the need to buy more proprietary hardware.

At the same time, we are seeing a shift away from proprietary ASICs built by vendors like Cisco and Juniper, to commodity products from Broadcom, Mellanox and others. These commercial ASICs allow original design manufacturers (ODMs) to build high-performance switches that are priced much lower than legacy routers. So, service providers need to change to using white box switches due to the cost advantage.

VMblog:  Is your cloud-based approach based on any standards, or is it proprietary?

Kelly:  It's a standards-based approach that is hardware agnostic - we can work with any open networking device which allows routing to be deployed in places where legacy routers are cost prohibitive.

Volta supports a wide range of routing and transport protocols. Our routing suite is based on the Free Range Routing open source suite and has demonstrated interoperability since we comply fully with the relevant FRCs. And Volta is a contributor to the FRR community.

An open approach is also important for automating network management and providing a holistic view of services, not just devices. The goal is to create a service and then provide the network resources to execute it using industry-standard automation via an open API to an operator's management, administration and network orchestration (MANO) system. Carrier-grade standards such as YANG service models will play an important role in network operations automation in 2020.

VMblog:  Beyond the ability to deliver higher performance, what other ways will service providers benefit from open, cloud-based routing?

Kelly:  Cloud-based, virtual routing can help service providers increase efficiency and gain more control over their network traffic. Virtual routers enable network slicing, which allows service providers to deliver a broader range of service from high bandwidth to low latency. This allows service providers to separate mobile traffic according to the application and manage them accordingly. This is a key driver for 5G deployments and we see virtual routing as the ideal way to ensure the network is ready for these new services while meeting cost goals.

VMblog:  What is next for Volta Networks?

Kelly:  We just announced our support for the Telecom Infra Project's (TIP) Disaggregated Open Routers (DOR) initiative. We also joined the DOR project team, which is driving research into new network architectures and services using disaggregated open routing among the global service provider and vendor community. 

We have been selected as a TIP finalist for several independent Disaggregated Cell Site Gateway (DCSG) request for information processes executed by service providers. These were based on the specification which defines open and disaggregated white box cell site gateway devices that operators can deploy in their 2G/3G/4G cell sites, as well as in upcoming 5G deployments, with support for Layer 2, Layer 3 and MPLS features. The DCSG trials are ongoing, but we look forward to their completion this year.

We already have a strategic partnership with Fujitsu as the cloud control plane for their Smart xHaul solution, and trials with several global service providers across Asia, Europe and South America, and I think you will see some of those trials move into production environments in 2020. We will also expand our customer base to begin new trials with additional service providers.

From a company standpoint, we are looking to hire significantly in 2020, continue to enhance our platform, and open some new office locations that are closer to our major customers.

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Published Friday, March 27, 2020 7:31 AM by David Marshall
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