Flicking The Switch

Thursday, October 09, 2014

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Building a high speed digital media network spanning 50 major US cities is a challenging project.  Thomas Wahlund from Net Insight examines how ‘The Switch’ embraced innovation to deliver an exciting new service

In 2011, The Switch, one of the fastest growing providers of transport services in the United States, announced an aggressive plan to scale its six major metropolitan locations to 50.

With a 20 year history, for the past five years, The Switch had been offering flexible HD-SDI, and SD-SDI transport services, utilised by the broadcast industry, to exchange video feeds between geographically diverse sites. The Switch’s key differentiator is its ability to equip customers with on-demand capabilities, enabling them to get faster and more reliable connectivity, without the requirement of advanced booking.

As The Switch’s community of users grew, so did the popularity of its services. This meant scaling the service offering, which required reengineering The Switch’s six-city network, which had previously been built in a “spoke-hub” configuration. In order to bring the service to 44 additional cities, The Switch quickly recognised it had to think beyond a centralised solution.

The Switch also wanted to introduce a nationwide network service that was unique to the industry. To achieve this goal, The Switch would build a proprietary, next-generation, customer-controlled software application called SwitchIT. Housed on touch-screen terminals, SwitchIT would provide flexibility, in addition to a full overview of both current and future bookings. SwitchIT would also offer customers the ability to change or add bookings in an ad-hoc fashion, instantly, providing them with complete ordering autonomy.  

Upon completion, The Switch would be the first media operator in the world to offer fully automated service provisioning. The system would significantly reduce operational costs, while increasing service reliability, and eliminating the source of human error.

National coverage

Scaling a network from six cities to 50 presented unique challenges. The first task was to tackle the long-distance capacity requirements. In order to offer uncompressed HD-SDI and SD-SDI, without perceived blocking, a huge amount of bandwidth and the need for a transmission platform that was able to take advantage of low cost, Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing (DWDM)-based wavelength services would be required.

Additionally, in order to introduce customer self-provisioning, which would lead to “occasional use behaviour,” a more flexible network was necessary.  Such services could be defined as a set of possible ingress and egress ports between which the customers would be able to send media traffic at will, while still preserving the high-end media service requirements of high quality of service (QoS) and low packet loss, jitter and wander.

Furthermore, this required the ability to establish services in sub-seconds so bandwidth and service quality could be assured immediately. There was no time for an iterative QoS approach, with continuous monitoring and multiple re-configurations, to find the right service level. Feedback on whether a service could be established with the required bandwidth and QoS attributes needed to be instant.

Customers required the ability to connect at any of the 50 city locations for a variety of purposes. To accomplish this efficiently, connectivity needed to be established through autosensing ports that supported multiple media formats, and in such a way that would enable customers to establish different services for different needs without changing physical connections.

Finally, one of the main objectives for The Switch was to minimise operational involvement in order to reduce costs and increase competition. The Switch wanted to deliver a fully automated service provisioning process, which could only be achieved by using a robust and straightforward network solution in combination with a highly sophisticated automation and control system.

Bandwidth reservation

To achieve its goal of scaling its network, The Switch utilised Net Insight’s Nimbra Media Switch Router (MSR) technology, which gave them an integrated high-capacity media switching and transport solution that could scale to requirements. The platform provided The Switch with multi-purpose media ports where any port can be auto-configured for uncompressed SD, HD or 3G-SDI, ASI or J2K, which provides the flexibility needed for any-to-any service delivery.

One of the key advantages with the choice of platform was that it guaranteed complete service and customer separation with bandwidth reservation, thus avoiding unknown resource conflicts. This was an important consideration, since it allowed for the predictability and service guarantees that are required to ensure sub-second service establishment while maintaining bandwidth, jitter and wander characteristics for high-end media transmission.

Another significant advantage was the use of an integrated control plane, which takes care of end-to-end service establishment using bandwidth and QoS aware routing. The control plane ensures end-to-end admission control avoiding over subscription of mission critical services, and provides for instant feedback if a service cannot be established due to lack of resources.

Utilising the control plane, any service can be source routed through the network with complete 1+1 hitless redundancy. Since the control plane is accessible through a Northbound API, it enables the integration of external systems for control and route selection. The Northbound API has made it possible for The Switch to use ScheduLink, a state-of-the-art automation and control system, for service booking and billing. With ScheduLink as a foundation, a unique customer portal for end-to-end service provisioning, which fully automates the order to bill process, could be developed.

In selecting a transmission platform, emphasis was also placed on the ability to establish point-to-multipoint, where new destinations could be added without disrupting ongoing transmissions. The Switch has used this in its implementation, so that customers can, for example, add destinations at will for monitoring purposes.

By putting the pieces together in a complete solution The Switch was able to scale its network, and fulfil its vision of delivering a modern media network and user-interface via SwitchIT. Currently in operation, the network allows for the provisioning of advanced media services from coast-to-coast without the involvement of an operator. Additionally the solution enabled The Switch to lower operational costs while continuing to provide its customers the unique flexibility, control and pay-per-minute services broadcasters had come to rely on.

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