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Service Provider  /   Network Intelligence  /  

Nsight: Transformation through Software Automation

A Service Provider Case Study 2018

Executive Summary

Headquartered in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Nsight delivers residential, enterprise and mobile communication services for the northeastern corner of Wisconsin. Since its inception in 1910, Nsight has been involved in numerous network transformations. With total network traffic increasing 28% annually and mobile data growing a blistering 50% annually, Nsight knew it was time for another significant change. Beginning in 2015, Nsight collaborated with Cisco to evolve its network architecture and began executing a strategic plan to enhance its network in three key areas: establishing a dynamic coherent DWDM optical core, developing a packet network with IP/MPLS to the edge and introducing advanced software orchestration and automation.

The dynamic optical network has been fully upgraded with support for up to 96 wavelengths and advanced CDC with Flex spectrum optical switching that enables the network to instantly steer and redirect individual wavelengths across its 3,250 route miles of fiber.

The packet network delivers Carrier Ethernet and VPN services from edge to core across an IP/MPLS packet infrastructure. Services range from 3G/LTE mobile backhaul to Voice-over-IP and multicast streaming for IPTV residential television.

The third component, network orchestration and automation, was recently introduced to enable faster service delivery, improved performance monitoring and increased operational efficiency.  Although early in deployment, Nsight is already seeing benefits and is well prepared for whatever the future brings.

Fixed-mobile-Convergance (FMC)

With support for residential, enterprise and mobile services over a common infrastructure that includes Ethernet/IP/MPLS switching/routing, converged packet optical transport and centralized mobile packet core, the Nsight network is a good example of fixed-mobile convergence. Service providers are increasingly moving away from distinct per-service or per-market networks as they try to maximize network utilization and minimize capital and operational expenses. The services are increasingly portable across mobile residential and enterprise delivery schemes. Having a unified FMC network gives service providers the ability to deliver a consistent and seamless user experience.

Figure 1: Nsight Fixed-Mobile-Converged Network

To implement these changes Nsight turned to its partner Cisco. The IP/MPLS network edge comprises NCS 540, ASR 9001 and ASR 920 nodes with service aggregation provided by NCS 5000, ASR 9006 and ASR 9010 network elements. ASR 9912s serve as the MPLS core. Rick Brooks, Nsight Director of Transport and Routed Networks stated that “Cisco’s service provider line-up of routers has enabled us to push MPLS out to the edge, making our network more scalable and intelligent. Cisco’s wealth of documentation and training has empowered our engineers to solve problems themselves and maintain ownership of the network.”

The company’s mobile network uses Cisco ASR 920 cell site routers utilizing IP-VPN based mobile backhaul to connect 500+ cell sites to ASR 9906/9020 aggregation sites across the optical transport network and the ASR 9912 packet core. More than 98% of Nsight’s cell sites have fiber connectivity and the remaining 2% will be upgraded in 2018.

Optical Networking

The optical transport network consists of next-generation colorless, directionless, contention-less, Flex-Grid reconfigurable optical add-drop multiplexer technology that enables rapid steering and redirection of individual wavelengths. The network is enabled by the 400Gb/s per slot, 15-slot NCS 2015 and 6-slot NCS 2006 network elements. 200G and 100G wavelengths are deployed with migration to 400G in the future.

OTN support enables containerized multiplexing of Ethernet and TDM/SONET services on the same wavelength. “Cisco optical has enabled transport scale with increased bandwidth demands,” says Brooks. “The Cisco optical planning tools and documentation again have been a differentiator in enabling our engineers to deploy and operate in-house,” he added.

Residential triple-play services utilize the same IP/MPLS and optical infrastructure with ASR 9001s providing residential broadband network gateway connectivity to DSLAM/ONT access elements for DSL and GPON-based FTTH last-mile delivery.

Enterprise services in the form of Ethernet and VPN connectivity are also offered via the combined IP/MPLS and optical infrastructure. In a move to improve resiliency and capacity, Nsight also recently upgraded its Internet access with a geo-distributed public core and 100G upstream connections.

Enhanced Programmability

The optical and IP/MPLS products that now make up the infrastructure at Nsight support open, programmable interfaces. Both optical and packet platforms support REST-based application programming interfaces (APIs) as well as streaming telemetry to enable real-time performance monitoring of services and the network.

Software Orchestration and Automation

With programmable infrastructure, open interfaces and performance monitoring in place, Nsight’s network was able to introduce software automation in the form of Cisco’s WAN Automation Engine (WAE) and Network Services Orchestrator (NSO)[1]. NSO provides intent-driven and automated configuration for the network, and WAE is used to improve multi-layer network efficiency across the Nsight IP/MPLS packet layers via advanced path computational analysis capabilities.

Figure 2: Cisco Automation Software Suite

Enhancing the team and maximizing skills

One of the biggest challenges Nsight faces is ensuring that its networking team has the best tools to maximize its skills and productivity while also minimizing manual and repetitive work. With tools like NSO and WAE, Nsight can automate node and service configuration tasks, reduce human error and help the team execute more projects. An added benefit is that employees learn new skills and cross-train among RF and packet networking engineers and technicians.

Rick Brooks fully admits that it is early days in utilizing NSO and WAE in its network, but he is encouraged so far. In a recent upgrade to its mobile backhaul network, Nsight recorded a 10% reduction in engineering time needed to configure, test, monitor and establish performance flows for the new IP VPN-based services.  The entire process was done faster with fewer errors and less troubleshooting time.  Because the team is new to NSO and WAE and still learning to utilize the GUI-based system, Rick expects the savings to improve significantly in the next 12 months.

Although the network engineering team also continues to grow at about 10% headcount per year, Rick also believes that with increased automation he can focus on attracting and increasing the number of network engineers and architects and minimize hiring for manual configuration and monitoring. “Leveraging NSO allows us to reduce the time the technician is in the field as well as the down-time a router is out of service. We measure the number of sites we can complete in a window.”

Looking forward

Nsight is not resting on its accomplishments. The company is currently investigating segment routing, virtualization of network functions and network slicing for future 5G mobile networks. Multi-access edge computing is also on the radar as Nsight considers evolving its compute and content delivery network from centralized data center locations to a more distributed networking model.

Conclusion

Service providers continuously deal with the rapidly growing bandwidth demands of their customers and the need to enhance their operational and network engineering efficiency. In partnership with Cisco, Nsight is meeting these challenges by transforming its network in three key areas. Early use of Cisco automation software combined with programmatic, next-generation optical and IP/MPLS infrastructure indicates that Nsight can reduce errors, decrease the engineering time in creating new services and maximize the skills and productivity of its network engineering team.

Nsight’s architectural transformation has increased its service agility, enabled additional future enhancements and positioned the company for its next phase of growth. Nsight’s residential, enterprise and mobile customers will be the ultimate beneficiaries.

About the author

Tim Doiron is principal analyst for ACG Research’s Intelligent Networking practice, which includes Packet Optical Transport solutions, Data Center Interconnect, Transport/Multi-Layer SDN, NFV with vCPE/SD-WAN and mobile anyhaul. In addition, Tim has ongoing collaborations in open source adoption, network programmability, orchestration and automation. Tim can be reached at tdoiron@acgcc.com.

A Cisco Service Provider Case Study
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