The Central Office Transformation

My recent post on the evolution of the telephone has raised much interest, but I am also seeing and predicting that the Central Office is undergoing and will undergo changes that are just as radical.  As I said in the prior post, these changes are difficult to envision and agree with at times, especially for long time telecom folks like myself.  That said, the average person is no longer simply connected by a telephone.  Being connected means having more than that these days.  Therefore, folks like me know these changes need to happen and they need to happen fairly quickly.

Let’s first remind ourselves of what the Central Office has been up until today.  Everyone’s telephone services and data services are made up of circuits – telephone lines.  The Central Office is a junction or wire center for termination and connection of all these physical circuits.  This began with actual wired cross connection systems and evolved with digital cross connects and switches.  The telephone switch and all the realted mutiplexing and cross-connection equipment has been housed in that windowless building called the Central Office.

These buildings have been built and rebuilt with ample protection against power failures (most have high capacity generators on site), and are self contained facilities with not only great power protection, but also great air conditioning, security, communications bandwidth (obviously) and space.  Slowly, over the past 20 years, thanks to technology the equipment has reduced in size, risen in capabilities and become less power and space hungry.  This means that for most Central Offices, there is more space, power, and air conditioning than the equipment in the facility actually needs.

What will we put into these emptying but valuable and capable facilities?  The answer is to make them miniature, distributed data centers.  That’s right.  It is happening everywhere.  Telephone companies are realizing the huge potential of these facilities to provide housing for, and backup/protection of, customer servers and computers.  So this expansion of services is well underway.  I am convinced this will go much further.

While housing customer systems and selling the associated communications links is a great way to make use of the emptying Central Office space, it is not a far reach to extend these services much further.  What if the phone company installed racks of blade servers, and then sold access to these server resources so customers don’t even have to buy computers?  Crazy?  Not at all.  In fact, the phone company can do this and by using virtual machine technology, actually release/resell the physical servers several times over.  The business case is actually quite compelling.  This expands the Service Provider offerings into the realm of cloud services that we ourselves are using at CellStream.

The overall impact to customers is huge.  They reduce their need for IT staff and equipment management (computers, servers, switches, and routers), and their data and programs are housed in the highest standardized, secure, power safe, facilities.  What is that worth?  A lot.  Especially when being “connected” today means having computers or applications or data that must be processed, stored and protected.  This is an obvious, easy sell to small/medium businesses, but also to entrepreneurs, home office customers, and even the individual’s families.  Consider the teenager’s need to store projects, videos, and reports in digital format somewhere, or the family photo album and video library.  All these things are digital files that need storage and protection.

These evolving central Office/Data Center facilities will blossom in the next two years.  To do so, technology solutions will and must continue to advance.  While Virtual Machines are easy to create, the virtual switches and virtual routers also needed to control access, provide security, and control traffic flow are in their infancy.  I made mention of this in my blog post back in 2009.  The need for complete virtual routing and switching at low cost will be crucial for the small service providers around the world.  This means intergration of virtual switches with ACL (Access Control) and VLAN technology into the virtual topology.   It also means virtual routers with VPN, MPLS, ACL and routing protocol technology in the virtual topology.

The Central Office is becoming the local Data Center and these distributed Data Centers will need to internetwork as well to evolve the Internet from a collection of web pages and sites into a collection of distributed, protected, and secure data centers serving a collection of web pages and sites.  What do you think?

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