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Software-based routing on its way to become the new normal

SD-WAN took the networking world by storm, and software-based routing aims to do the same in the router market. Here's what to expect from the move to software.

Enhanced silicon performance and improved routing software have combined to make the $14 billion router market...

ripe for disruption.

Enterprises, service providers and other organizations increasingly deploy software-based routing for a variety of network locations, including branch offices, data centers, the network edge, cell sites and the network's core. Doyle Research expects strong growth in software-based routing at traditional routing's expense over the next five years.

Software-based routing, or virtual router software, is distinct code sold separately from underlying hardware -- typically on x86 or Broadcom white boxes. This routing offers a different business model from traditional, box-based routers with integrated hardware and software from vendors like Cisco or Juniper Networks. The $1 billion market for software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) has proven innovative software can disrupt the branch router market.

Software-based routing benefits

Software-based routing uses the increased price and performance of commercial silicon and white box pricing. Software-based routing performance will continue to improve with software innovation -- e.g., new routing software suppliers -- and hardware improvements as Intel and Broadcom introduce new, faster silicon platforms.

Software routing provides flexibility and the ability to update remotely. Other advantages include the following:

  • IT teams can place software-based routing anywhere.
  • Teams can easily update routing functionality.
  • Software offers flexible pricing models and lower costs -- 30% savings or more.

Software-based routing use cases

IT teams can deploy software or virtual routing anywhere the organization requires routing or routers.

IT teams can deploy software or virtual routing anywhere the organization requires routing or routers. Innovative software routing code is being developed to target a variety of places in the network with performance ranging from low-end branch requirements to high-end core or data center capacities.

Specific software-based routing use cases include the following:

Also, the migration to 5G requires a significant change in mobile network performance and intelligence. For example, 5G will require five to 10 times the number of cell sites, five times the bandwidth and new quality-of-service capabilities to support guaranteed performance over network slicing.

As mobile operators evaluate new open RAN architectures, multiple vendors will be able to deploy software on white box platforms. The investment required for 5G will promote RAN sharing, which introduces additional routing requirements.

Software-based routing technology and vendors

Software-based routing technology needs to use -- but be independent of -- network silicon advances. Software-based routing suppliers typically support either Broadcom switch silicon or Intel x86, although some support both. Routing software's leading advantage is its significant cost differential from traditional routers.

In addition, software-based routing requirements -- which vary by use case -- include the following:

  • the ability to flexibly scale up performance;
  • operational efficiency through automation;
  • open APIs and the option to customize and run microservices; and
  • multi-tenancy support.

While dozens of SD-WAN suppliers exist, a number of new, innovative software-based routing technology suppliers also target different network applications. Examples include the following:

  • Volta Networks, which deployed its virtual routing software at cell sites as part of several RAN upgrade projects with leading mobile operators.
  • NetElastic Systems, which focuses on edge aggregation routing requirements, including Broadband Network Gateway functions for fiber-to-the-home buildouts.

Other vendors include 128 Technology, Arrcus Inc., AT&T, DriveNets, RtBrick and Stateless. Traditional router suppliers, including Cisco and Juniper Networks, also offer routing code independent of their hardware.

Where is the future of routing headed?

Routing will remain a critical network function to connect disparate elements across branch offices, the network edge, data centers, cloud environments and the network's core. SD-WAN's success on Intel hardware showed software-based routing's capacity to change the industry. Networking innovations in routing software code and continued silicon performance increases will drive software-based routing to new applications in the 5G RAN, network edge and data center and to the highest performance of the network's core.

Network architects should evaluate software-based routing on commodity hardware for new builds and network refresh projects.

Next Steps

Compare the leading SD-WAN vendors before you buy

SD-WAN explained: The ultimate guide to SD-WAN architecture

This was last published in April 2020

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