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Next Generation Networks and Grids

This week I attended a meeting at the ITU in Geneva on the topic of Next Generation Networks (NGNs) and Grids. NGNs are developed by the telco industry to provide a range of services over IP networks. The key to their design is the separation of service provision from transport mechanisms. Traffic may be routed over different types of network, each of which provides a common interface. The same traffic may in turn implement all sorts of services, including voice, television, videoconferencing, data transfer, multiplayer games, and whatever application designers come up with in the future.

So NGNs have a virtualised infrastructure providing a range of user services. They are using Web Services technology and are tackling issues such as security (authentication, authorisation, audit), accounting & billing, service description and deployment. Which all sounds familiar from the Grid world. That's what this workshop was about. In particular, it was to investigate opportunites for the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) and the OGF (Open Grid Forum) to work together. Of necessity, much of the time was spent on mutual education - I certainly knew little about NGNs before (although I knew something of BTs incarnation of NGNs, their "21st Century Network").

I was particularly interested in the presentations about Quality of Service (QoS). This is absolutely crucial to NGNs, because different transport mechanisms have different performance characteristics, while different services have different requirements. For example, data services usually demand zero loss of information, while voice can be more relaxed about packet loss provided that enough arrive in time. IPTV has very stringent requirements on both packet loss and arrival time. So the NGN architecture details how QoS requirements can be passed from services to transport mechanisms via a central abstraction.

QoS hasn't received so much attention in the Grid world, but I believe that it will be vital there. Currently Grids are still being installed by experts and used in circumstances where "best effort" performance is satisfactory. (Within a single organisation, "best effort" may be very good quality). There is research that addresses how to specify and establish service-level agreements, but fpr the most part this hasn't been deployed in production grids or entered the standardisation process.

The workshop finished with a discussion of how the ITU and OGF could co-operate on producing standards that address some well-chosen use cases. This seems a potentially valuable partnership. Certainly the ITU can bring expertise in many areas to the Grid world, including audit and accounting. Perhaps the partnership will also advance the state of QoS specification too.

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