ConteXtream: Software-defined networks for carriers

Telecommunications carriers often support networks many times the size of large enterprise networks. The problem is that each application or function is supported by separate networking equipment. ConteXtream believes that its SDN technology could improve performance while saving money.

I recently had a conversation with ConteXtream's VP of marketing, Anshu Agarwal, about telecom carriers' wireless networks, the challenges they face, and how software-defined networking — a form of network virtualization — could help.

Naturally, Agarwal pointed out proudly how one of ConteXtream's customers was supporting a network that covered 50 cities, provided networking functions for 50 million subscribers, and had both reduced costs and improved networking performance by almost 40 percent.

What is software-defined networking?

My colleague Mary Shacklett presented the following discussion of software defined networking in her post, 10 key questions about software-defined networking (SDN)

Software-defined networking (SDN) is a way to virtualize networks for ease of configuration and maintenance in the same way that servers and storage are being virtualized. The difference is that SDN as a network solution is not nearly as far along as virtualization in the server and storage worlds.

Nevertheless, SDN is coming — and the more IT decision-makers and business leaders know about it, the better they'll be able to determine where and when to introduce it to their data centers.

Agarwal went on to talk about how carrier wireless networks are implemented today and the benefits of adopting SDN.

How are carrier networks implemented today?

Agarwal pointed out that traditionally mobile wireless networks chain functions and services in a serial fashion. While this approach is easy to understand, it can be quite challenging to add a new function or remove an old one. Since carriers are trying to attract new customers by adding new features and functions, anything that makes it more difficult to be agile can mean a loss of customers and revenues.

This approach has another issue: reliability. If a function fails, functions after it in the chain may become unavailable too.

Performance can be an issue as well, since each function has to process network traffic, forward on traffic for other functions, and process its own messages. Agarwal pointed out that this approach increases the complexity, processing, latency and also overall provisioning costs for the carriers.

What ConteXtream suggests

ConteXtream is suggesting that carriers adopt network virtualization so that data and control functions are in separate layers. The company says that moving towards SDN (using its technology, of course) offers the following benefits:

  • Shared and lower cost hardware – The solution enables all functions running on common off the shelf (COTS) hardware. This enables functions to share compute resources. Furthermore, these hardware resources are much lower cost compared to proprietary systems.
  • No over-provisioning of the functions is required because traffic from only those subscribers that are utilizing the service passes through that function.
  • Deploying network functions in software in the service provider cloud helps deliver service functions across geographical boundaries thus greatly improving resource utilization.
  • Service agility is greatly enhanced with the ConteXtream SDN solution, as it enables operators to test and roll out new services, and introduce them in production networks without downtime or network upgrade cycles.


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Carriers are interesting. In some ways, they are pushing the envelope of today's technology. In other ways, they lag the state of the art.

Carriers push the envelope by scaling their networks to support millions of customers. For the most part, their networks do this while maintaining reasonable levels of performance and reliability.

They, for the most part, don't try to keep up with every new technological wrinkle or fad, however. They wait for things to be well proven before implementing them.  They haven't rushed to deploy network virtualization as quickly as vendors hope.

ConteXtream is thus pushing software-defined networking up a steep hill and faces the challenge of persuading carriers one at a time. If one looks at the company's successes and participation in key SDN standards groups and open source projects, it is likely that it is going to be able to persuade carriers that SDN is the way things should and ought to be done.

The company needs to continue its uphill battle and broadly publicize each success story its technology generates. Eventually the majority of carriers will move in the direction of a virtualized network infrastructure the same way they moved to virtualize their processing and storage infrastructure.