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The Cisco Visual Networking Index: Benchmark for Broadband Demand

The company's annual report has become one of the world's leading sources for assessing the Internet's growth. News@Cisco spoke with the team behind this effort.

May 24, 2010

By Charles Waltner

One of most quoted sources from Cisco Systems these days isn't a person. It's a report.

Over the past three years, the Cisco Visual Networking Index has become a highly regarded measure of the Internet's growth. National governments, academic researchers, telecommunications companies, technology experts and the business press have all taken a keen interest in what the company's annual study has to say about our digital future.

While most political and business leaders fully appreciate Cisco's trademark assertion of the Internet's critical economic and social importance, everyone has a few questions about how to best plan for this transformation. The Visual Networking Index provides some much needed answers.

A Thorough Measure

Arielle Sumits, one of the lead analysts for the report, says Cisco's work stands apart from other assessments of Internet traffic in three regards. It is more comprehensive than most other studies, it provides a consistent yearly record of growth, and it offers a highly detailed estimate of how network usage will evolve. All combined, the Cisco report reveals crucial shifts in traffic patterns and highlights trends for planning investments in networking technology.

Sumits says Cisco started its concerted research about four years ago to answer its own questions about what was happening with the Internet. After the dotcom implosion, there were few remaining sources comprehensively assessing global traffic growth, so Cisco decided to do the work itself.

Ears immediately pricked up when Cisco first presented its findings to various telecommunications companies. Soon the research team found itself at board meetings and in front of government regulators from the United States, Japan, Britain and other countries

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Encouraged by such interest, Cisco began publicly publishing what it now calls the "Visual Networking Index" forecast three years ago. Over time the company's research has become increasingly extensive, drawing on additional sources and dividing traffic patterns into more detailed segments.

Cisco's Visual Networking Index (VNI) now examines many of the most popular communication options available today, from computers and TVs to webcams and gaming consoles. It also includes growth data for most types of networks carrying Internet protocol (IP) traffic, including mobile data and private business networks.

The Cisco report also covers the far corners of the globe, providing metrics parsed into six regions and offering individual data for 14 countries.

In addition to five years of extensive historical information about the Internet's growth, the Index currently provides a detailed projection to 2013, which now predicts total Internet-based traffic reaching almost 56,000 petabytes (see chart).

Putting the Index Together

To view over the digital horizon, the VNI team gathers information from a wide array of sources, including industry analysts, syndicated research outfits and academics covering a broad span of technologies, markets and geographies.

Sumits says the group relies on a "demand-side" model to look at how users of communications services are behaving, rather than focusing on the "supply-side", or what providers of communications services and equipment plan to do.

Through an extensive process of reconciliation and synthesis, the Cisco researchers sort through the details and methodologies of the collected information to account for variations or anomolies.

"We make sure we are crystal clear about how all the numbers have been put together," Sumits says.

The VNI team then cross-checks its projections from these sources with up-to-date traffic reports from more than 20 of the world's leading communications service providers. This is made possible through a collaborative arrangement Cisco has with some of its customers.

This real-time traffic data helps Cisco confirm its forecast accuracy for each year and establishes a clear benchmark for future estimates. Like blips on a radar screen, these reports from Cisco's major customers can show new traffic activities that foretell yet another shift in how people use modern networks to communicate.

Usha Andra, the other lead researcher for the VNI project, says the team uses conservative methodologies to develop its forecast and taps an expanding array of sources and tools to check and cross-check its estimates.

But because Cisco obviously has a vested interest in Internet growth, some industry observers have wondered out loud if Cisco inflates the startling growth numbers revealed in the report. Cisco's projections, however, has proven to be very accurate.

The VNI report, for example, predicted a 51 percent growth rate for global Internet traffic in 2008. The actual rate was between 50 and 60 percent according to the Minnesota Internet Traffic Studies group and 53 percent according to TeleGeography.

Predicting the Digital Future

Robert Pepper, vice president of international governmental affairs at Cisco, says the VNI's comprehensive and detailed mapping of Internet growth has captured interest worldwide from anyone responsible for building out 21st century communications networks.

"Policy makers are using it to take deep dives into the numbers," Pepper says.

Pepper, who led the policy team at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission for 15 years, says the report helps governments and communications providers design "fit for purpose" networks that address the specific ways the Internet is being used in a given country or region. Latency, mobility, symmetry and "burstiness" are some of the different traffic characteristics that require special tuning to support.

"It's not just about building bigger, faster networks," he says. "As the data clearly shows, not all traffic is equal."

For Cisco, the index has been a door opener by allowing the company "to engage in conversations with the world's leading policy makers," Pepper says.

Telecommunications companies also use Cisco's VNI information as a benchmark for comparing changes in their traffic patterns with those of their peers from around the globe.

For example, the index has identified the emergence of an "online video primetime" that runs from about 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. each night, creating a regular spike in traffic. Such traffic surges are important design considerations for building networks. Like roadways, the Internet needs to gracefully handle such daily rush-hour traffic without gridlock.

Complexities Growing with Bandwidth

As Cisco's Internet growth report gains prominence, the company's researchers are reaching beyond traditional networking and technology industries for new insights. The team, for example, is now conducting more investigations into the supply-side drivers of traffic growth.

By looking into the flat-panel display manufacturing market, for example, the team has determine that there will be 2 square feet of digital screen space for every person on earth by 2013. Correlating that size to the bandwidth demands generated by high-definition video gives the team another way to project just how quickly global bandwidth consumption could ramp up.

Sumits and Andra acknowledge that collecting, collating, aggregating, estimating, extrapolating, reconciling and synthesizing all the data for the report is no easy task. The database that houses the index now contains 28,000 lines of information.

Andra says "device influence" is one of their toughest challenges these days. More and more types of communications devices, from smart phones to video chat tools, are hitting the market. Anticipating the effect of such never-before-seen technology is difficult.

New multi-core computer chips, for example, are much more adroit at multi-tasking, making it far easier for users to upload or download several streams of traffic simultaneously, such as viewing a webcam video while backing up a hard drive or sending email. This has created a new phenomenon of Internet usage the VNI team dubs "hyper-connectivity."

And in Japan, a mobile phone service called digital photo frames has virtually overnight created a surge of new subscribers and traffic. "No one anticipated that," Andra says.

With such rapid changes possible in Internet usage, Andra and Sumits say they need to keep their minds wide open. The classic "PC in the home" is now just one in a rapidly growing list of scenarios.

"The models are constantly shifting," Sumits says. "We really have to be careful about what we assume. Tomorrow it could be a completely different story."

Charles Waltner is a freelance writer in Piedmont, Calif.

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