Brief Observations on the State of Networking in Pakistan

I was in Karachi, Pakistan recently for brief visit during the Christmas holidays. Though the purpose of my visit was personal, I did manage to squeeze in some time speaking to professionals who are intimate with the state of networking in Pakistan. In particular I spoke with one individual at Cisco Pakistan who did not wish to be named, but is very familiar with the largest networks in Pakistan.

First, a brief word about telecommunications. Mobile networks in Pakistan currently utilize GPRS and EDGE technologies. Plans to roll out 3G and pseudo 4G technologies have been put on hold. However, broadband speeds to homes and offices have improved significantly over the years, with WiMAX deployments common in Karachi.

Amongst the various ISPs in Pakistan, the biggest player by far is PTCL, which, as of 2006, is a semi-private corporation. PTCL is a Cisco shop that is investing heavily in L2 and L3 MPLS backbones for their customers. For many years, up into the mid-2000s, VSAT communications and dialup were the only means of Internet connectivity. So it was refreshing to see this step being taken.

High Availability is a tough ask in Pakistan with very few enterprises deploying redundant links or nodes. The exceptions are the larger banks. Generally speaking, it has been difficult to educate CIOs in Pakistan on the need for high availability. Likewise, structured cabling and cooling in Data Centers is often neglected or simply misunderstood.

On the technology front, the biggest banks in Pakistan are among the few to deploy Nexus 7Ks. Service Providers such as PTCL deploy CRS’. Virtualization has also yet to make a significant penetration in Pakistan Data Centers. Only the largest banks carry ESX licenses. My questions about SDN, overlay networks, and private clouds met bemused expressions.

However, the country has no shortage of talent. The number of universities that offer degrees in computer science and computer engineering has increased significantly since the early 1990s. The past 20 years has seen some brilliant professionals rise from Hamdard Institute of Information Technology (HIIT), Usman Institute of Technology (UIT), Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institiute of Engineering Sciences and Technology (GIK), and the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences (SEECS) at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST). R&D work in engineering sciences, unlike that in the natural sciences, is of a much higher quality and comparable to any international institute.

Take, for example, a startup incubated out of NUST, called xFlow Research, which is doing fantastic work in porting Open vSwitch to the Marvell xCat and LION platforms. On the Open vSwitch mailing list archives, about 10% of the contributions come from Pakistanis.

Clearly, despite all the challenges that Pakistani enterprises face with proprietary offerings from pure-play networking vendors and a politically unstable environment, the open source world offers a lot of potential to Pakistan networking industry. I wouldn’t be surprised if 2013 saw some major contributions to OpenStack being made by Pakistani companies.

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