How many times a day do you communicate with Europe? What about Asia? If we're counting sending and receiving data to or from those regions—whether its via methods such as web browsing, social media, or routine transactions—you probably do it a lot more than you realize. And when you do, that data is almost definitely traveling underwater for part of the journey. In fact, when it comes to intercontinental traffic, submarine networks carry a staggering 95% of the data as well as transactions totaling $10 trillion—per day.
At these levels, it's easy to argue that submarine cable networks have become, in economic parlance, "too big to fail." They are a crucial part of our everyday lives and our economy. The question now becomes: How can we protect this vital infrastructure, while still advancing its capabilities to keep up with ever-increasing data needs?
Big data a big help
Given the role submarine cable networks play in keeping our internet infrastructure running, these networks have gone through significant advancements in the last several years. This includes the current focus on software-defined networking (SDN) and virtualization. The introduction of coherent modems in subsea cables was a big step toward the kind of openness that facilitates software-driven, virtualized environments. Their introduction also helped to build out capacity, enabling operators to scale and optimize cables to handle web-scale traffic now and into the future.
There are several methods by which submarine cables and their data can be safeguarded from threats as varied as malicious actors, network failure, and accidental disruption or severing of the cables. Some of these protections happen on the level of policy, some deal with physical defense, encryption, or other means—but it turns out, one of the biggest technology trends of today can also help protection: big data.
One of the key features of an open, software-defined submarine network is the ability to take advantage of the significant cable security and maintenance benefits from big data and analytics. Combined with orchestration and policy, the collection and analysis of data from various sources gives operators the ability to visualize and identify trends taking place in the submarine cable networks. While in many cases this data-driven insight will be used to create more profitable services or more accurately predict capacity requirements, it also enables operators to anticipate potential network and service disruptions before they take place and to detect anomalies, thanks to better data on network performance.
Proactive and reactive failure mitigation are sought-after features for operators of these mammoth cables. It allows them to avoid costly network downtime (when $10 trillion is transacted per day across a small number of cables around the world, even a short blip of downtime on one route represents a large problem for users on either side) and decrease repair or maintenance costs (things caught before they become a problem usually cost less money to correct), all while continuing to provide a positive, uninterrupted experience for users on either side of the network.
If not now, when?
If vital cables are a top priority, when will the proper safeguards be in place?
The good news is that we're already starting to see the beginnings of this technology take root in submarine cable networks. But we can learn even more about how this approach will benefit cables beneath the waves by looking at big data applications, failure mitigation, and related activities on terrestrial networks. That's because a lot of these features are enabled on land-based environments via the same platform that would be used on subsea ones; there may be differing applications between terrestrial and subsea, but the underlying APIs in an open networking environment are largely the same for both. That will be a significant help for vendors developing and operators rolling out subsea-specific features.
And since we've already seen a push for openness—allowing customers choice and to avoid vendor lock-in—on land, it is likely that more open submarine networking features aren't far behind. And with that openness comes network optimization, software-driven features, and ultimately, data applications such as the ones discussed above. The submarine cables of today may be "too big to fail," but they're only going to get bigger, so operators must be prepared with the data and insight they'll need to protect them. The blueprint for this data-driven protection already exists on land—now we just need to take to the seas.
Brian Lavallée is director of portfolio marketing, Packet and Submarine, at Ciena.