From the core to the edge: Inside Eir’s data revolution

25 Oct 2017

An Eir engineer busy rolling out fibre in rural Ireland. Image: Eir

We talk to Eir’s head of core IP and optical design, Colin Dalton, about the impact of fibre broadband on the network’s evolution.

Did you know that despite outages during Storm Ophelia, Eir had the busiest day ever on its network (Monday 16 October) with peak traffic reaching terabit speeds of 1,068Gbps?

Not only that but at a retail level, Netflix consumption reached 102Gbps at peak. That’s a lot of people Netflix and chilling.

‘In the last nine years alone, our data traffic has grown thousandfold’

Colin Dalton laughs at my observation but concedes the point: “To make sure the network has enough capacity to carry traffic, both retail and wholesale, we look at the number of users on the network and how much traffic they demand as an aggregate and across the sites as a whole. If you were to look at it over a 24-hour period, on the average day you would be looking at 2.1 terabytes [TB] of traffic as a whole.

“On the Monday of Ophelia, that jumped up to 3.1TB in volume.

“Across the day as a whole, the peak rate achieved was 1.07 terabits per second [Tbps]. The distribution of traffic on the day was also completely different. Normally, our residential user base would be quiet enough during the day and would ramp up significantly in the evening. However, on the Monday of Ophelia, it was busy during the day and even busier that night.”

Scoping the optics

From the core to the edge: Inside Eir’s data revolution

Eir’s head of core IP and optical design, Colin Dalton. Image: Eir

As head of core network design at Eir, Dalton’s job is to ensure that Eir has capacity to handle existing loads but also to plan for the future.

He began with Eir 19 years ago when it had an ISP called Telecom Internet during the days of dial-up. Now, in the era of smartphones, broadband and fibre, the speeds and rates of consumption of data are completely different.

Eir’s broadband network now sees just over 1.7m homes and businesses passed by fibre and this will reach 1.9m by the end of 2018. In recent weeks, Eir said it has passed 100,000 fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) premises as part of a €200m investment agreed with the Irish Government to serve 300,000 homes in rural Ireland with fibre.

“Looking specifically at our retail side, our biggest traffic on the evening of Ophelia came from Netflix. It wasn’t a huge jump but it was notable in an environment where a large number of regular users had been cut off in the storm. So, those who remained connected were certainly making the most of it.”

In terms of what generally would be Eir’s biggest source of data consumption from a retail broadband perspective, Dalton said that Google properties, especially YouTube, would be significant destinations. “On a typical day, traffic to Google and YouTube would be 30pc of overall volumes.

“Netflix accounts for 17pc to 18pc of retail traffic.”

From dial-up to full-on digital

Looking back on the evolution of the internet at Eir, Dalton recalled what he had to work with 19 years ago.

“Back then, access to the network was by dial-up modems. We had a core, which consisted of routers connected by ATM and frame relay for a couple of megabits each, and we had international pipes as well.

“It is quite similar in structure today only the access has jumped from 56Kbps to hundreds of megabits per second [Mbps]. The structure is the same only the pipes have gotten a lot bigger.

“In the last nine years alone, our data traffic has grown thousandfold.”

When designing for the network of the future, what are the criteria employed?

“We look at it from a number of perspectives. There is the requirement to deal with things on short timelines, and we would have certain technologies available to us today in terms of switching capabilities of the routers and the underlying optical transmission we would be using to connect routers together.

“On the one-to-two-year time horizon, we have to work with what we have in the network, so it is about making sure we have enough ports to connect the internet to, making sure those ports are sufficient speeds.

“It has been a migration from 1Gbps links to 10Gbps links, and then from 10Gbps to 100Gbps in the core of the network. We have a system that connects the traffic from all of the routers on the network, and we can graph and trend that over time. We take in inputs from the business about how many extra customers are expected, we plot the usage per customer over time on an average basis and then we multiply the two together into the future to see if we’ll need so many 100Gbps links in the next 12 months.

“We have to design those network solutions, order equipment from suppliers and, when it comes in, issue the design jobs to our field staff to go and install in the exchanges.

“Further out, you are looking at newer technologies to save the day.”

Silicon speeds

One of the biggest technical leaps has been the arrival of new chipsets that boost speeds and throughput.

“Traditionally, routers would have been built using chips and software made by players like Cisco, Juniper and Nokia.

“But what we are seeing is new chipset manufacturers disrupting the market and coming in with chipsets that can handle orders of magnitude, more data in the same physical footprint and power consumption.

“This is a development known as merchant silicon as opposed to custom silicon and we can buy it off the shelf. It has been pretty disruptive. Without merchant silicon, the cost per bit would have shot up and it would have been difficult to keep up with traffic volumes.”

This is an economic imperative as much as a technological shift.

“The reality is that nobody wants to pay any more for their internet access. It’s the same cost as it was 10 years ago even though it is six, 10 or even 100 times faster.

“On optical transmission, the technological level, we have been running our optical network using 32 channels of 10Gbps each down a pair of fibres, but now that has grown to 90 channels of 100Gbps and in the future, we are looking at 400Gbps ethernet.

“Digging up streets and putting in fibre is very, very expensive – all about squeezing as much as you can out of the fibre you have in the ground already and, thankfully, technology is keeping up so that when 10Gbps channels were really filling up, 100Gpbs became reasonably costed, and, as we see 100Gbps filling up, now 400Gbps links are coming down the line – that’s 400Gbps per optical channel. There’s a constant arms race between the demand people have, which is driven by increased access speeds, and the capability of the transmission and router manufacturers at the core side of it.

“We continue delivering the increase on the core side of it; there is no point having a gigabit fibre access if 20 of your neighbours are trying to get through the same 1Gbps pipe to the internet.”

Dalton said that the battle is ensuring backhaul from the core network to the customer premises.

“In the last five years, there have been places that may only have been limited to 30Mbps or 40Mbps radio backhaul. But now, we’ve got fibre to those places and there’s almost infinite bandwidth.

“It’s up to what you light the fibre with at the end of the day, so it gives us a much better upgrade path into the future.

“Places like Castletownbere in the far south-west that relied on radio systems are now connected to fibre. Radio is much more of a struggle with the laws of physics than fibre when it comes to bandwidth. Just with fibre, there is an order of magnitude higher, so a lot more overhead to play with.”

Country feedback

I ask Dalton if he goes out on the road to survey network roll-out and assess problems.

“I like to get out of the office every few weeks to see what is happening in an exchange. It’s all very well sitting up in what may be perceived as an ivory tower in headquarters, issuing edicts out to field staff, but it is important to see the realities of what’s out there and see some of the difficulties the field staff have to deal with.

“And, the more rural you get, the more interesting those problems can be.

“Some of my favourite stories are from people who reported poor DSL performance; we would study the performance and be scratching our heads. Looking at a monitoring system in Dublin and everything would seem fine, but go down to visit the place and you would see stuff as diverse as a robotic lawnmower that had been imported from China and not compliant with European interference regulations, or electric fence or milking parlours interfering with copper. So there’s a lot going on out there that you don’t experience if you just stay in Dublin.

“The other good thing is, fibre is immune to this interference on the electromagnetic spectrum.”

Recently, Eir moved to rebrand Meteor as simply Eir, bringing all of its 1m mobile customers under the one service.

“In the same way we would have DSL and fibre access into the network, LTE and 4G cellular access is another access mechanism into the core network,” Dalton explained.

“The traffic volumes are significantly lower due to the fact that most people, when they come into a Wi-Fi area, their phones will switch to Wi-Fi and it goes to fixed traffic then. But we do take into account the traffic growth in the mobile access network as well and we are also responsible for making sure there is access to the mobile core and the customers have a proper browsing experience.”

Dalton explained that the future for fibre-based services is limitless.

“It’s very exciting. Thinking back to the dial-up days, you would wonder then why anybody would ever need 1Mbps or 2Mbps or 10Mbps. Now, the exciting thing is not knowing what is going to drive this bandwidth tsunami coming at us.

“Looking at our traffic at the moment, it is quite clear it is video, given that YouTube and Google are responsible for nearly 30pc of traffic at peak times. You are constantly wondering what is next.

“The video revolution has gone from little postage stamps in the early days to full HD and, increasingly, 4K video streams. That will take it to another point: the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 are going to be broadcast in 8K, four times as much data. VR brings it to a whole new level again in terms of huge amounts of data.

“If you were to look into a crystal ball, one thing’s for sure is, the demand keeps going up and up – the tricky bit is figuring out what is going to drive the demand. At the moment, it is more video but you will see VR starting to ramp up as computers become more capable.”

But, even if the capabilities of fibre are increasing, Dalton warned that there will be pressure on people to make sure they have the right compute power to keep up.

“An issue that comes into our call centres when people aren’t getting their full speed is, customers’ laptops, phones and tablets have to be able to have the processing power to cope with all of this data.

“And also, the network in people’s houses needs to be able to cope with all of this data. You are not going to get 1Gbps on Wi-Fi or on wired ethernet on a 10-year-old generic cheap laptop.

“People’s own IT infrastructure needs to catch up with what is possible out there.

“If you get that and compelling applications like VR, then you can see the demand curve going onwards and upwards as time goes on,” Dalton concluded.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years