User-Centric Networks Will Drive New Architectures

UCNs will have a broad and significant impact on how networks are developed and managed

Marcia Savage

September 7, 2016

4 Min Read
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The average person today is surrounded by a cloud. Smartphones alone connect people to a wide array of content and services. Add the other devices they interact with in the office or in their connected home, and the concept of user-centric network (UCN), created and controlled by the user over networks selected by the user, has emerged.

Users will be able to pick and choose network resources to create their own virtual networks and, in effect, become their own service provider. This is done today on a closed basis and at the scale of social networks such as Google and Facebook, but tomorrow small communities will be able to do the same.

The definition of UCN has yet to be set in stone as it has slightly different meanings depending what angle you approach it, but in general, it consists of improving the user experience, independent of device, network, location, mobility conditions, and based on a wide range of context provided by the device and the user. What is certain is that UCN will have a broad and significant impact on new and existing networking architectures, both in terms of how they are developed and managed.

UCN means the user experience and connected devices, including machines and other “things” composing the Internet of Things (IoT), must be part of new architectures. This includes not just the cloud, but radio access, edge and fog networks. One of the key goals of UCN is to re-center future services around the user by extending the traditional public infrastructure to improve content, connectivity, storage, and compute functions.

In the same way that IoT promises there will be billions of devices connecting and sending data, UCN also integrates a wide variety of end-user devices, as well as home gateways and cloud infrastructures. Functional components developed in wireline groups, such as private storage containers, data collectors, and recommendation engines, will also have to made part of a common UCN system. It will require the specification of the core functionalities of each component and execution platforms as well as defining the interactions between the various components.

One likely element of UCN will be a “personal information database” to help optimize data placement both in terms of personalized discovery and delivery of content. This database would essentially be a data store with personal information and several mechanisms such as subscribe/publish at the edge of the network. The edge is becoming the heart of 5G-era systems with a set of functions that can communicate with back-end systems to optimize content delivery as well as discover nearby compute, storage, and networking resources.

Social networks have already introduced the idea of context-aware recommendations and personalized services based on user preferences and profiles; the UCN further supports this model, including optimal delivery mechanisms, resource management, content adaptation to environments, and ad insertion. From an end-to-end internet perspective, an end-user device will actively participate as a network element in addition to being an endpoint host. It's even envisioned that one day devices will be the equivalent of today’s cell towers and users will sell capacity back to the telco in the same way homeowners with solar panels sell their excess energy back to the electric utility.

This means compute, storage, and networking will all need to be part of a network function virtualization (NFV) framework, and capacity of among these elements will need to be shared within a UCN. The emergence of UCNs will also contribute to the development of edge-cloud networks that create collaborative environments at the network edge. These environments will need to be resilient and accommodate devices that may encounter intermittent connectivity. And of course, they will have to be secured in a robust way. UCN will require that network boundaries of trust to be extended in a manner that mimics social behavior.

UCNs also will further push the evolution of cellular networks, which are already moving toward no-cell or dynamic architectures. Today, denser and more heterogeneous applications are forcing more dynamic units that are not permanent, but flexible enough to follow the needs of users as they move around.

Although still in their infancy, interoperable UCNs present both challenges and opportunities for network architectures, but ultimately will prompt a paradigm shift that leverages existing developments, including NFV and software-defined networking.

Eileen Healy is Co-Chair of IEEE Software Defined Networks (SDN), a worldwide initiative addressing the main softwarization aspects of SDN, NFV and 5G. She is currently the CEO of Healy & Co., a leading-edge engineering services company. Working with U.S. telecom network operators, her company supports the implementation of capacity delivery, network migration and business planning services. With a career steeped from a service providers perspective, Eileen has held senior positions in several telecommunications companies, including Pacific Bell Mobile Services and AT&T. She obtained a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from University of California at Berkeley.

Cagatay Buyukkoc works for AT&T Architecture and Design organization as a Lead MTS, leading efforts on various SDN/NFV frameworks and RAN evolution target architecture. He is also the co-lead of IEEE SDN initiative preindustrial committee. He graduated from METU, with EE BS and MS degrees and a PhD degree from University of California, Berkeley in EECS. Cagatay also obtained an Executive MBA on International Business from Wharton. He held various technical and management positions in AT&T Bell Labs, Lucent Technologies, ZTE, Cisco and AT&T.

About the Author(s)

Marcia Savage

Executive Editor, Network Computing

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