Cash-Strapped Operators Risk Overheating The Internet


Operators who delay network expansion may overload their Internet switches, warns Ovum. Users may have to buy premium IP services instead

Service providers are running their networks “hotter” to save money, and user experience will suffer, according to consultancy firm Ovum.

“Router spending is down, IP traffic is up,” said John Mazur, principal analyst for Network Infrastructure at Ovum. Internet service providers (ISPs) are putting off buying new network equipment to save money, just when the amount of traffic they are handling is exploding, he said.

Service providers spent 20 less in the first quarter of 2009, than they did in the first quarter least year, and Ovum expects the figures to decline even further: “Global service provider switching and routing spending is falling, and we haven’t seen the bottom,” said Mazur.

Despite this, ISPs are reporting that IP traffic is growing fast – and is predicted to grow even faster in future, as users consume more IPTV and other services. Cisco’s Visual Networking Index predicts IP traffic will increase fivefold between 2008 and 13, and the largest growth segment will be consumer Internet.

“We attribute some of the recent router market decline to recession-induced postponement of strategic IP transformation projects, but service providers are also delaying short-term investment to shore up financial results,” said Mazur.

“The result is that operators are running IP networks hotter.”
Service providers normally operate the core of the network at about 40 to 50 percent utilisation to allow room for expansion and traffic bursts. Normally there is no problem till traffic gets to more than 80 percent of the available bandwidth.

At the edge, providers have a higher utilisation, so that most Internet users see traffic slowing at busy times – but that is only a local effect.

If providers’ cores start to overload, that won’t look very different, but more users will see the problems of dropped packets, delay and jitter, says Mazur.
The overall effect could be to limit or slow the growth of the Internet, as users make less use of the service, and make it harder for providers to offer high-bandwidth services. In the UK, this could have an impact on issues such as Digital Inclusion and the government’s Broadband Britain programme.

So far, interconnections between operators in the Internet core have not needed much regulation as there has been plenty of bandwidth, but this might change if carriers can’t provide enough capacity to meet agreements. “More centrally controlled countries such as Japan, South Korea, and France have higher-performance Internet networks mainly due to greater regulatory oversight,” says Mazur. The UK, like the US, has traditionally avoided heavy regulations on IP services.


More worryingly, the overloaded network might experience router failure, similar to the results of a denial-of-service attack, Mazur speculates: “What happens if one of many routers fails during a traffic peak? Router software is equipped to route around failures, but no one really knows the impact on end-users.”

Instead of trusting the “best-efforts” Internet to support mission-critical applications, or expecting to fix the problem with WAN optimisation equipment, users may have to invest in high-quality “premium” IP services, which carriers offer alongside their Internet services.

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