In my last post (Open is the best (only) policy) I gave a high-level view on why I think open access networks are important today but I didn’t really explore why I think that offers just a narrow glimpse of why open access will become the single most important thing network operators can do for their customers, and why the UK is unknowingly paving the way.

So a bold statement:

I think that Active Line Access (ALA) will become one of the most important features of public networks in the years to come – but it will take a little time for that to become apparent. I also know that so far very few people have understood this.

When I talk to people who build public networks they typically see ALA as the necessary replacement to PPP/L2TP; that its the technical remedy that allows them to hand-off connections to ISPs in an NGA world. They are of course right in a very practical, narrow sense but what the NICC did in codifying a long list of technical standards was much, much more than that.

When I talk to people who build campus networks their immediate response is what’s all the fuss about; ALA is a codified collection of standards that large corporates have been using for many years. Again broadly true but they have forgotten what their lives were like before they had these tools.

A Ghost of Christmas Past

Travelling back 15 years to the world of large corporates, a network managers lot was very difficult. They typically had the biggest budget in the IT department with the biggest sign-off but they also found it the hardest to provide direct empirical evidence that any incremental increase in their budget would deliver a greater incremental impact on the business; granular return on investment calculations were impossible.

Around this time I started to talk about the proximity to business, and it went like this:

  • The applications people had a direct relationship to the business so anything they did had a direct and immediate bearing on the business; incremental change could be measured and valued.
  • The core software people, like database administrators, were closely coupled to the applications people so although they were one step removed from the business and their systems may be shared, they were were close enough to the business they could measure their impact.
  • The server teams were further removed and incremental investment is beginning to become more challenging because their world is now two layers removed and increasingly shared but by working closely with the applications and core software people they could typically prove enough incremental value to justify additional investment.
  • The network teams were by definition universally shared and with no direct connection to parts of the business, only to the business as a whole; at this time, budget meetings in times of major shifts in the business were a pretty unpleasant affair and something most network managers dreaded (or at least the ones focussed on the business did)

With Y2K looming, I started to focus on how I could bridge the void and improve my proximity to the business. It was also at this time that what I then called 3D networks were beginning to be possible. Traditional 2D networks were a trade-off between distance and speed but 3D networks had a policy axis using a combination of VLANs and qualities of service; combining these meant I now had a granular control over the network and could therefore finely adapt the network in response to changing business needs – it was now possible to improve the network’s proximity to the business and therefore provide a direct and measurable impact. Budget meetings could now be constructive and less confrontational.

It took time for the ideas of 3D networking to take hold, and my name for it never stuck, but today any private network manager of any merit should be able to have a direct dialogue with the business.

When the NICC created ALA, they codified the tools that private network managers use; they put in place the mechanisms to improve the proximity of public networks to people and businesses – and the impact of that will, in time, be far more profound.

A Ghost of Christmas Future

It often takes a single event to focus minds and create the conditions for a shift of this kind:

  • For private network managers it was Y2K, when vast sums were spent renovating application platforms and they needed to justify their budgets.
  • For public networks it will be the shift to NGA network we’re just beginning.

So when I talk about Service Providers I’m not being lazy and omitting “Internet” because I assume they’ re synonymous;  its because I think ISPs are in reality a general-purpose subset of Service Providers – that once “providers of service” become aware of what the NICC has done the service provider market will become a whole lot richer and more exciting.

I had hoped the NHS might have been the pioneer in this space – the confluence of PSNs and the emergence of NGA is an opportunity that should be grabbed with both hands – but I suspect it will take a major commercial company to make the first move.

Who might the early movers be? The major cloud companies and content delivery networks (CDNs) are the obvious choices, and who better than Google (with YouTube) and Amazon Web Services (with Love Films).

Imagine this:

Today Google offer a best endeavours YouTube service, over the top of other people’s transit networks; it works okay if your goal is to support three minutes of viewing per day but isn’t good enough for three hours per day. This is at the root of Google’s concerns over Net-Neutrality.

In response, Google launch a Premium YouTube service for a few pounds month but instead of routing the service via an IP-based BGP interface onto your ISP’s network, its routed via an ALA VLAN hand-over point to your network operator. Quality is assured so now you can watch three-hours a day of broadcast quality media, and Google can secure the rights to premium content as the risk of pixelation has been removed and the rights holders can feel confident their brand wont be damaged.

Love Films backed by an ALA-based “Networks as a Service” offering from Amazon Web Services is at least as well placed to be the pioneer, completely demolishing the current rigid assumption that viewing is either linear (broadcast) or non-linear (on-demand); their new streaming package that learns your viewing habits is the first baby step.

Today, this minute, this is a dream – a perfectly feasible dream – but as companies like Love Films evolve their services and they explore, prod and push the capabilities and limitations of the underlying networks then I’m as confident as I can be that it will become a reality. When (not if) an organisation like Amazon Web Services gets their heads around the capabilities of ALA the world will change and imaginations will be unleashed.

Today we have a world of Over the Top (OTT) services – prepare for a world that combines OTT with RTS (round the side) services – and prepare for a future that blows your mind.

If you build your networks without ALA in mind then you are about to condemn your platform to obsolescence and your customers to boredom!

Start developing your networks with a proximity to your customers in mind and you will never look back!

  1. Anonymous says:

    I don’t profess to understand half of what you say, I am not a techie, but I think you are talking about digital parish pumps… broadband cumbria blog.

    Until we break the monopoly which is throttling innovation and get some affordable backhaul into the rural areas we can’t build open access networks or any networks. The only way is economy of scale, and not many areas will work together at this moment in time, as they are all waiting for government help. Once people realise they are stuck on the wrong side of a digital divide they will start to work together. Like b4rn has.

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