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Should NBN Co squeeze a server into FTTN nodes?

There's still time: node design hasn't been settled

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Last week, Dell revealed an item of interest in the form of the PowerEdge R420xr, a shortened and ruggedised version of its PowerEdge R420 intended for use in the field by telcos.

Dell launched the device at CommunicAsia, the region's annual telco-fest, with a pitch that it is small enough to fit into base stations (hence the shortening) and rugged enough to survive life on the street.

The company's spiel also suggested that putting a server closer to users is a good idea for several reasons. For one, a server can be a lovely cache. Or a smart cache: telcos could send a 4K version of a movie to the edge of their network and use the server to transcode it when subscribers happy to view it in lesser formats make the call. Perhaps the server could also be used to perform some billing functions.

The general idea is that a clever carrier – or retailer living on a wholesaler's network – should be able to find all sorts of things to do with a device packing two Xeons and up to 16TB of storage on the edge of its network.

Of course in Australia the edge of the network is a very contentious place, given the government's decision to rely on a mixture of DOCSIS 3.1 on hybrid fibre coax and fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) on copper to deliver the nation's National Broadband Network (NBN).

Critics of that plan, and the change from a fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) plan, bemoan the slower speed and seemingly lesser upgrade path for the newly-chosen technologies.

Might those objections be overcome if NBN Co's FTTN nodes include a server? Doing so would reduce traffic on the fibre link and could result in all sorts of interesting services being made available. It's not hard to imagine that such services could help to overcome the raw speed deficit between FTTP and FTTN and create a smarter network, if not one with the same headline speeds.

Yes, a server in a node would represent risk: even a rugged device would struggle to be as reliable as telco-grade kit. And the prospect of retailers fighting for access to their slice of a server is not edifying given Australian telco competition history is littered with disputes over access to wholesalers infrastructure.

The good and bad news is that NBN Co tells us FTTN node design is not sufficiently far advanced for servers to have been considered, although an Alcatel node design is being studied. That's a bit scary because we've been told FTTN deployments will be going like a train any month now. If node design isn't settled NBN Co may struggle to go fast once the various reviews into the network land.

On the upside, it means the company is still open to ideas.

Why not give them one by suggesting how to use a server on the NBN's edge in the comments? ®

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