Case study: Sky Broadband looks to scale with Cisco

Sky Broadband ISP chooses Cisco’s new Network Convergence System (NCS) to meet the demand of its growing customer base

The fight is on between the UK’s internet service providers (ISP) to offer the best connections and win customers from their rivals.

Sky Broadband has been part of this battle since it launched its broadband and calls service in 2006. The company now holds the number two spot when it comes to subscribers and is seeing more and more demand from data-hungry consumers.

But to meet the needs of its customers, it has to grow its network capacity and find new ways to ensure a reliable and fast service.

“Today when planning the network, we look at what we think the peak-hour bandwidth needs are and plan with a six-month window to be ahead of demand,” says Damon Pegg, chief network architect at Sky Broadband’s parent company BSkyB.

“Just after the release of iOS7 and the consequent app downloads, we peaked at 1.3TB of peak traffic, around 250 to 300KB per person, which is equivalent to one on five consuming a standard definition video stream all at the same time.”

Overall the company is seeing consumer traffic volumes rocket by 65% annually, and the desire for a speedy network to handle new applications, especially video, is always at the forefront.

“Customer expectations have changed where we are now at with video,” says Pegg. “Six or seven years ago when Google bought YouTube, each video was a few KB and quality was definitely variable.

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“Now people want to consume on demand video services and people expect the network to perform, even if it is peak hours. We try and deliver that and we have to scale the network rapidly.”

The ISP has been working with Cisco for its core network since launch and Pegg says he had always been impressed with the products and the engineering behind them. But technology had changed in the past seven years and Sky needed to make a call on where to put its money.

“We have been using the carrier routing solution from Cisco for our core network since we launched and that was a pretty new platform back in 2005,” he says. “Now we see the emergence of a new generation of technology and we are at the tipping point where we need to decide whether to put a significant investment into the previous system or put money into emerging technologies.”

Although there were other vendors Sky could have turned to, it stuck with its existing partnership and adopted Cisco’s latest release, the Network Convergence System (NCS).  It has adopted NCS alongside the Cisco 9000 range for routing and switching at its backbone internet edge, which runs across six sites hauling back its traffic from BT exchanges.

The solution allows Sky to virtualise its infrastructure and redirect resources where they are needed, enabling hardware to be consolidated and giving it the ability to scale when needed as traffic grows.

You always take a leap of faith when investing in a new system but it is not about fancy software features, but the smart engineering behind the platform

Damon Pegg, chief network architect, BSkyB

“Cisco are not the only people bringing this type of technology to market but the decision we made is their NCS next generation solution will work for us for another seven or eight years, which we believe because of their record when it came to engineering the previous platform,” says Pegg.

“You always take a leap of faith when investing in a new system but it is not about fancy software features but the smart engineering behind the platform.”

Sky currently runs two planes of its network that are semi-independent but also interconnected. It plans to build a third plane using the Cisco NCS equipment, testing its robustness along the way, and getting it up and running early next year. Then it will build a fourth plane, due to go live in the middle of 2014, and once both are working with live traffic, it will transfer from its existing legacy planes.

“For us it is fair to say we wanted to get onto the next generation of technology,” says Pegg. “There is a lot of talk about convergence and has been ever since I have been in this business, but from an operational and architectural perspective, it now becomes more realistic to be able to run consumer and enterprise services and broadcast over the same infrastructure.

“Also telecoms operators are getting excited about network function virtualisation, taking solutions from the world of cloud like elastic compute to deploy applications and running them in a more flexible way.”

But it won’t just be the engineers at the back-end able to experience what the new solution will bring, as the main benefit will be felt by subscribers to Sky Broadband.

“We are confident that subscribers will only see the benefits, though in a much less tangible way than what I see,” says Pegg. “Consumers will be able to watch more and more of what they love, without having to see what is going on with the network.

“If we don’t hear any complaints, we know we have done our job.”  

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