Antonio Manzalini: Innovating Networks

Advancing the softwarization of networks for a digital society

8 December 2014

By the end of this decade, billions of new terminals and devices, including smartphones, tablets, and robots, will have come out on the market, each containing embedded communications and dozens, if not hundreds, of sensors and actuators. Telecommunications infrastructure will play a key role, becoming the nervous system of a digital society and economy by supporting this tremendous number of new terminals and devices.

To keep up, many in the IT and telecom communities say a new architectural model—software-defined networks (SDNs) together with network functions virtualization (NFV)—will be needed. By decoupling hardware from software, SDN technology is expected to make networks simpler to manage, more flexible, quicker to build and deploy, and more cost-effective. Virtualization, on the other hand, will allow cost optimizations.

IEEE Member Antonio Manzalini, chair of the IEEE Software Defined Networks Initiative, wants to make sure that the sweeping transition will create new socioeconomic opportunities. Imagine, for example, the business ecosystems that will be created by the synergies of SDN and cloud robotics: new mobile robots—smarter and controlled through the network—will be exploited for industrial and agricultural tasks, easing the burden on workers while optimizing the processes. He is helping to make that transition a success through experimental activities, standardization, and explaining and promoting SDN technology through the media, workshops, publications, and conferences. The first-ever IEEE Conference on Network Softwarization is scheduled for 13 to 17 April in London.

“The network of the future will seamlessly interconnect a tremendous number of terminals, devices, machines, and smart objects at the edge—where the users are—with the enormous processing power available in the cloud,” Manzalini says. “Cloud computing, SDNs, and NFV are different facets of the same worldwide industry transformation toward the ‘IT-ization’ of any process.”

DEFINING FUTURE NETWORKS

Manzalini has been working for Telecom Italia for almost 25 years. Since 2007, he has been a senior manager at the Future Centre in Turin, Italy, part of the telecommunications giant’s strategy and innovation department. He is in charge of investigating SDN, NFV, and 5G technologies, enabling innovative service scenarios, and foreseeing their potential socioeconomic impact. In addition to hands-on research and innovation, he works with global industries and academic partners to define requirements and standards for future telecommunications infrastructure.

Current telecom networks can be thought of as interconnected complexes of equipment such as transport nodes, routers, switches, and middleboxes that shuttle data traffic from one node to the next across the network. The equipment is mostly based on specialized hardware and closed software.

SDNs separate the hardware (which forwards the data packets) from the software (which is in charge of controlling the routers). One main novelty is the fact that software is then executed not necessarily in the equipment but potentially in the cloud or on distributed servers. Another key aspect of SDNs is a wide number of abstractions and application programmable interfaces to program the functions and services of network resources.

“Nevertheless, SDNs should not be seen as the next generation of switching and networking,” Manzalini says. Simply put, through SDNs and NFV, all the network functions provided today by middleboxes could be virtualized and executed in the cloud and in various locations in the network as required. That gives administrators cost savings, flexible control, and a big-picture view of the entire network so they can quickly create and deploy new services.

Manzalini says the integration of the two should make it easier for new operators to enter the market. “SDNs and NFV can be seen as expressions of a systemic trend, called IT-ization or ‘softwarization,’” Manzalini says. “This trend is enabled by IT technoeconomic drivers, and it will produce cost reductions via automation and optimization of processes everywhere.”

ADDRESSING NEEDS

At Telecom Italia’s Future Centre, Manzalini investigates the most novel applications of SDN and NFV technologies and monitors their progress. Under his guidance, and in partnership with other international players, researchers are carrying out theoretical analyses, computer simulations, and experimental validations of the new network models.

Technology innovation is just one part of Manzalini’s job. He is also in charge of understanding SDN’s socioeconomic impact—for example, addressing the technologies’ business sustainability and analyzing their effect on regulations.

Manzalini grew up in Turin, devouring science fiction books and movies, fascinated by their depiction of technology. He says he knew he wanted to become an engineer when he was 12 years old.

He earned a master’s degree in electronic engineering from the Politecnico of Turin. After graduating, he considered jobs at the European Space Agency, IBM, and a former Telecom Italia research center. The job at Telecom Italia was closer to his career dreams at the time—which, he says, were “to investigate advanced telecommunications technologies and the way they could help to progress and to solve the grand challenges of humanity.”

He joined Telecom Italia in 1990, researching technologies and architectures for optical networks. Over the years, he led several international projects funded by the European Commission and was involved in a number of standardization activities. The move to the Future Centre in 2007 was a logical next step, he says.

Manzalini is also busy pursuing another passion: He is investigating the complexity of swarm intelligence in nature, in phenomena such as flocks of birds, ant colonies, and clusters of particles—a subject that has interested him for a decade. Such collective behavior has networking principles in common with quantum particles, neurons in the brain, and humans in society, he notes. “Nature is ahead of us: We should develop our new technologies by learning from nature.”

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