In defending the FTTP NBN I’ve seen nearly every argument imaginable as to why we shouldn’t be doing it. Whilst I can understand the concerns around rollout times and the total cost the NBN stands as one of the few multi-term, nation-wide infrastructure projects that has tangible benefits that will last for decades to come. Some of the more esoteric arguments I’ve received have hinged on the idea that consumers are quite ok with the current state of Australian Internet and that anything above that is a wasteful exercise that will only support consumers of pornography and illegal downloads. This could not be further from the truth but it still seems to remain as a valid talking point for anti-NBN stalwarts.
Shown above are the take up rates from NBNCo released back in March this year and it’s pretty easy to discern a common trend here. Whilst there are a couple places showing stagnant growth most are showing very strong upward trends. Indeed most of them track the 2 highest take up rate areas pretty closely and so it is reasonable to conclude that they will eventually all see similar adoption rates. Considering that the service is still in its infancy overall take up rates of 30% are pretty amazing and will only get better as the offerings from various ISPs improve. So there definitely seems to be a demand for the NBN although the question then becomes do people want higher speeds or are they just looking for a more reliable Internet connection?
The report that NBNCo presented to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Broadband network contains some pretty in depth analysis of the current consumers of the NBN and the data is quite telling. Initially it was thought that the bulk of the NBN’s customers would be on the lowest plan possible (12Mbps down /1Mbps up), on the order of 49% or so with the next biggest sector being 25/10 at 27%. Actual deployed numbers differ from that significantly with the lowest sector accounting for 39% and the next biggest sector being the top tier plan (100/40) with 31%. This means that there’s a large number of Australians who want the fastest Internet they can get their hands on and the majority of them want speeds above what they’re currently getting.
This echoes the sentiment that’s been seen oversees with similar projects like Google Fiber in Kansas City. This runs contrary to the Liberal’s position that 25Mbps would be enough for the average household as it seems like many would like to take advantage of higher speeds. Whilst its looking more and more like the NBN will remain untouched in its current form (although it might end up being rolled out by Telstra) those ideas still seem to permeate the rhetoric of NBN detractors. As the numbers show Australians are craving faster, more stable Internet connections and given the opportunity they’ll take the best options available to them.
Honestly I know this shouldn’t bother me as much as it does, especially considering that the rhetoric has died down considerably since the election, but the idea that the NBN isn’t needed, or even wanted, by the Australian public is just so wrong that it borders on offensive. The NBN is going to elevate Australia to being one of the most connected countries in the world, rivalling some of the top technologically advanced nations. I know that I, as well as many of my technically inclined friends, have big plans for when those high speed connections become available and I’m sure many businesses will have the same.
The state of broadband Internet in Australia is one of incredible inconsistency. I lived without it for the better part of my youth, being stuck behind a dial up connection because my local exchange simply didn’t have the required number of people interested in getting broadband to warrant any telco installing the required infrastructure there. I was elated when we were provided a directional wireless connection that gave me speeds that were comparable to that of my city dwelling friends but to call it reliable was being kind as strong winds would often see it disconnect at the most inconvenient of times.
The situation didn’t improve much when I moved into the city though as whilst I was pretty much guaranteed ADSL wherever I lived the speed at which it was delivered varied drastically. In my first home, which was in an affluent and established suburb, usually capped out at well below half of its maximum speed. The second home fared much better despite being about as far away from the closest exchange as the other house was. My current residence is on par with the first, even with the technological jump from ADSL to ADSL2+. As to the reason behind this I can not be completely sure but there is no doubt that the aging copper infrastructure is likely to blame.
I say this because my parents, who still live out in the house that I grew up in, were able to acquire an ADSL2+ connection and have been on it for a couple years. They’re not big Internet users though and I’d never really had the need to use it much when I’m out there visiting but downloading a file over their connection last week revealed that their connection speeds were almost triple mine, despite their long line of sight distance to their exchange. Their connection is likely newer than most in Canberra thanks to their rural neighbourhood being a somewhat recent development (~30 years or so). You can then imagine my frustration with the current copper infrastructure as it simply can not be relied upon to provide consistent speeds, even in places where you’d expect it to be better.
There’s a solution on the horizon however in the form of the National Broadband Network. The current plan of rolling out fibre to 93% of Australian households (commonly referred to as Fibre to the Premises/Home, or FTTP/H) elminates the traditional instability that plagues the current copper infrastructure along with providing an order of magnitude higher speeds. Whilst this is all well and good from a consumer perspective it will also have incredible benefits for Australia economically. There’s no denying that the cost is quite high, on the order of $37 billion, but not only will it pay itself back in real terms long before its useful life has elapsed it will also provide benefits far exceeding that cost shortly after its completion.
Should this year’s election go the way everyone is thinking it will though the glorious NBN future will look decidedly grim if the Coalition has their way with it. They’ve been opponents of it from the get go, criticising it as a wasteful use of government resources. Whilst their plan might not sound that much different on the surface, choosing to only run Fibre to the Node (FTTN) rather than the premises, it is a decidedly inferior solution that will not deliver the same level of benefits as the currently envisioned NBN. The reason behind this is simple: it still uses the same copper infrastructure that has caused so many issues for current broadband users in Australia.
You don’t have to look much further than Canberra’s own FTTN network TransACT to know just how horrific such a solution is. After a decade of providing lackluster service, one that provided almost no benefit over ADSL2+, TransACT wrote down their capital investment and sold it to iiNet. If FTTN can’t survive in a region that is arguably one of the most affluent and tech savvy in Australia then it has absolutely no chance of surviving elsewhere, especially when current ADSL services can still be seen as competitive. You could make the argument that the copper could be upgraded/remediated but then you’re basically just building a FTTP solution using copper, so why not just go for optic fibre instead?
What really puts it in perspective is that the International Space Station, you know that thing whizzing 300KM above earth at Mach 26, has faster Internet than the average Australian does. Considering your average satellite connection isn’t much faster than dial up the fact that the ISS can beat the majority of Australians speed wise shows just how bad staying on copper will be. FTTN won’t remedy those last mile runs where all the attenuation happens and that means that you can’t guarantee minimum speeds like you can with FTTP.
The NBN represents a great opportunity to turn Australia into a technological leader, transforming us from something of an Internet backwater to a highly interconnected nation with infrastructure that will last us centuries. It will mean far more for Australia than faster loading web pages but failing to go the whole for the whole FTTP will make it an irrelevant boondoggle. Whilst we only have party lines to go on at the moment with the “fully detailed” plan still forthcoming it’s still safe to say that the Coalition are bad news for it, no matter which angle you view their plan from.
Once an IT environment gets past a certain size the requirement for automation grows exponentially. When you’re working in an environment with a handful of servers and a dozen or so PCs its easy to just spend the time doing everything manually. If you’re in a situation like I am right now where a single deployment covers some 400+ physical servers then that process isn’t particularly feasible, especially if you want any level of consistency across the fleet. It should come as no surprise then that I spend the vast majority of my time automating the commissioning of IT infrastructure and since I don’t want to do something 400 times it usually sees me trying to automate things that really don’t want to be automated.
Take for instance this little fellow, a Dell 8/4 Fibre Channel Interconnect module for a M1000e chassis (sounds sexy, right?). Don’t let that Dell badge on the outside fool you, like a lot of Dell hardware it’s actually a rebranded Brocade fibre switch under the hood, albeit with a significantly paired down feature set. For the most part it’s just a dumb NPIV device that acts as a pass through for high speed connections but it does have a little bit of smarts in it, enough so it would typically come under the purview of your on site storage team. However due to its paired down nature it doesn’t work with any of Brocade’s management software (at least none that we have here) and so the storage team wasn’t particularly interested in managing it. Fair cop but there was still a few things that needed to be configured on it, so my colleague and I set about figuring out how to do that.
Usually this is when I’ll track down the CLI or automation guide for the particular product and then dig around for the commands I need in order to get it configured. Try as I might I couldn’t find anything from Brocade themselves as they usually recommend using something like DCFM for configuration. There is a SSH interface on the devices however which does have a rather comprehensive set of commands in it but there didn’t appear to be any way to get at these remotely. We could, of course, use something like TCL with EXPECT to essentially automate this process but that’s traditionally quite messy so we asked our on site resident from Brocade if there was a better solution.
There isn’t, apparently.
So off we went building up a TCL file that would do the configuration for us and initially it all worked as expected (pun completely unintentional I assure you). Our test environment worked every time once we had all the initial kinks worked out of the script and we were confident enough to start moving it up the chain. Of course this is when problems start to become apparent and during our testing we began to find some really weird behaviours coming from the switches, things that aren’t mentioned anywhere nor are obvious unless you’re doing exactly what we’re doing.
So in order to build up the original TCL script file I’d PuTTy into one of the switches and execute the command. Then once I had confirmed the changes I wanted to be done had been done I’d then put them into the script. Pretty standard stuff but after re-running the scripts I’d find they inexplicably fail at certain points, usually when attempting to reconfigure a switch that had already been deployed. Essentially I’d look for a “Access denied” message after trying the default password and then send along the correct one afterwards as that’s all that was required when using PuTTy.
However looking at the logs not only is the message it sends back different, saying “Login incorrect”, it also doesn’t just ask for the correct password it also requests the user name again. There are also significant differences in the way output is written between the two interfaces which means for things like EXPECT you have to code around them otherwise you’ll end up trying to send input at wrong times and read lines that you might not want to. It’s clear that there’s 2 interfaces to the Brocade switches and they differ enough between each other to make coding against one incompatible with the other which is just unacceptable.
Realistically what’s required is for Brocade to release some kind of configuration tool like Dell’s RACADM which provides a direct hook into these devices so they can be automated properly. I’ve found old forum posts that reference something like that for Perl but as far as I, and the Brocade people I’ve talked to, am aware there’s nothing like that available for these particular devices. It’s not like its impossible to code EXPECT up to do what we want it to but it’s ugly, unmaintainable and likely to break with firmware updates. If there is a better solution I’d love to hear it but after all the time I have invested in this I’m pretty sure there isn’t one.
Unless Brocade has something in the works, nudge nudge 😉
There’s little doubt in my mind that the National Broadband Network will be a major benefit to Australia, way past the investment we’re making in it. It’s one of those rare pieces of legislation that will almost certainly outlive the government that started it and the Labor government should be commended for that. Indeed something like the National Broadband Network is almost a necessity if Australia wants to keep pace with the rest of the world in a technological sense as otherwise we’d be stuck on aging copper infrastructure that really doesn’t have any legs left in it. Still whilst anyone in the IT or related sectors would agree that the NBN will be good for business it’s not entirely clear what those benefits will be.
News.com.au ran a story this morning that pointed to research showing only 30% of Australian businesses had a “medium to high” understanding of the benefits available to them through the NBN. Making a few assumptions here I’m guessing the survey didn’t ask actual questions to gauge their true understanding so it’s likely that that number is actually a lot lower than the survey lets on. I’ll admit that for a non-technical person, who was likely the one answering the survey, the benefits of ubiquitous high speed Internet for your business are not entirely clear especially when the Internet they have now is probably doing them well enough.
The businesses geared to make the most of the NBN are ones with multiple offices spread throughout Australia. Right now getting a good inter-office connection, whether a full WAN or just some trickery using VPN tunnels and a regular ADSL, is either an expensive or complicated affair. The NBN will provide high speed interconnects at prices that many businesses will be able to afford. This means you’ll be able to get almost 100MB connections between offices giving you LAN like speeds between disparate offices. It might not sound like much but even small government agencies currently struggle with this (I’ve worked for more than one) and the boost in productivity from better connections between regional offices is very noticeable. This would also extend to remote workers as well, since it’s highly likely that they’ll have NBN access as well.
Having a large connection also enables businesses to move services out of expensive hosted data centres and onto their own premises. Right now it’s nigh on impossible to host client facing services internally unless you want to shell out a lot of money for the business type Internet plans. The NBN will bring data centre level speeds to almost every home and place of business in Australia enabling current businesses the opportunity to migrate inwards, saving on rental and administration costs. Sure the facilities they have might not be as good as what they can get elsewhere but the cost savings of not using a co-located service (believe me, they’re not cheap) would be more than worth it.
There’s also a host of services that are currently infeasible to operate, due to their high bandwidth use, that would become feasible thanks to the NBN. Such services won’t be available immediately but as the NBN reaches a threshold of active users then we can expect either local innovators to create them or for current Internet giants to localize their services for Australia. Predominately I see this taking the form of cloud based services which are accessible from Australia but have yet to have local nodes due to the lack of supporting infrastructure. This would also help cloud providers crack into that ever elusive Australian government sector which has remained resistant due to the restrictions placed on where their data can be stored.
The NBN will also bring about many other ancillary benefits due to the higher speed and ubiquitous access that business will be able to take advantage of. Indeed the flow on effects of a fully fibre communications network will have benefits that will flow on for decades for both businesses and consumers alike. Realistically this list is just the tip of the iceberg as over time there will be numerous services that become available in order to take advantage of our new capabilities. I personally can’t wait to get onto it, enough so that moving to one of the fibre enabled locations is tempting, albeit not tempting enough to make me move to Tasmania.