Much has been written of late extolling the virtues of Software Defined Networks (SDN) and Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) which are widely regarded as the way forward for leading service providers in their quest to create agile networks whilst reducing costs.
The focus for many CSPs has now moved on from ‘why’ to ‘how’ and the purpose of this article is to provide practical guidance and help for those embarking on this network transformation journey.
According to a recent report from the OpenStack Foundation, Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) is a game changer for telcos because it helps them quickly develop and deploy new applications and services whilst reducing their CapEx and OpEx spend. SDN/NFV enables CSPs to innovate their networks at the speed of software.
In case we are in any doubt of the meteoric growth of this technological approach, Infonetics Research reported a fivefold increase in the market for SDN and NFV by 2018 with a projected value of $11.6bn (£8bn), while SNS Research pins the market growth rate at 54% between now and the end of the decade.
A research report by Arthur D Little and Bell Labs in June 2015 attempted to estimate the tangible benefits of moving from a traditional to an SDN/NFV model. The study worked with operators in 35 European countries.
Collectively, these operators had adjusted revenues of €250 billion in 2013, with annual OPEX of €150 billion and a staff of 665,000. It concluded that they can on average achieve 26% cost savings on operational expenditure, representing a staggering aggregate savings of $39bn (£27.5bn/€35.1bn) per annum.
The need for speed
Given such impressive benefits it’s not surprising to learn that a survey conducted by Heavy Reading estimates that 60% of telecoms professionals are actively exploring the technology. Leading Tier One CSPs including AT&T, NTT DoCoMo, Telefonica, Verizon, Vodafone are all investing significant time and resources in SDN and NFV.
Leading CSPs have adopted NFV as a way to deal with ever increasing data traffic on their networks - traffic doubling every 12 to 18 months and much of it is video.
This relentless surge in data demand has prompted a rethink away from the traditional appliance centric infrastructure and a move to a more agile infrastructure approach, built on Commercial of the Shelf (COTS) platforms and leveraging merchant silicon.
AT&T’s senior executive vice president John Donovan has been publicly quoted as saying AT&T plans to move three-quarters of the operator’s global network to a software-defined architecture by 2020.
Other tier one operators embarking on a similar route include Verizon, which has launched SD-WAN service for enterprises and in Europe, Deutsche Telekom has already launched a cloud VPN service in Croatia, Hungary and Slovakia.
In a nutshell SDN and NFV will enable CSPs to elastically scale their infrastructure near real time to meet growing data traffic demands and to launch new services at greater speed.
Getting Past Ideation
At the heart of the move to an SDN architecture is building multi-vendor open solutions and transitioning from closed proprietary hardware-based solutions to one which places the onus firmly on software, open source components and COTS hardware platforms.
Such a move requires significant integration and for many operators is still only at Proof of Concept (PoC) stage. The migration from legacy networks to SDN/NFV requires addressing the challenge of successfully integrating third party hardware and software solutions that are sourced independently from different vendors.
Whilst operators are keen to reap the myriad benefits of the transition, they are also mindful of the importance of maintaining 5NINES reliability, delivering existing SLAs, maintaining telecom grade quality and reliability.
Breaking the SDN/NFV deployment barrier is also dependent on successfully adapting and tailoring cloud solutions for telecom networks in order to overcome inherent practical challenges.
Taking OpenStack software as an example, which is well proven in the cloud, but moving it to telecom infrastructure involves entering uncharted waters as BT reported its own challenges with OpenStack in a recent Light Reading article.
Best-of-Breed vs. Best-of-Suite?
Another challenge is in deciding between the best-of-breed vs. the best-of-suite (integrated NFVI/MANO stack) approach. Whilst the route of least resistance is likely to be the best-of-suite option where the vendor provides higher levels of pre-integrated solutions, this inherently defeats the fundamental promise of putting an end to vendor lock-in.
The best-of-suite approach puts the CSP back on the path where a handful of vendors will create lock-in on their infrastructure and over time dictate the network innovation rate.
Only breaking free from vendor lock-in to create an agile, elastic and programmatic infrastructure will allow service providers to rapidly bring innovative new services to their customers. The best-in-class approach must be the preferred option even though it initially entails integration challenges.
Finding the right partner to perform the integration is vital; ideally one that possesses the skills, experience and expertise to integrate, test, certify, performance optimise and manage the hybrid network - including both the virtual and physical network functions.
The right systems integrator partner must the one who has wholeheartedly embraced open innovation and has strong credentials in adapting open source solutions. The successful implementation relies on strategically engaging with a vendor agnostic systems integrator, one with the telecoms pedigree, but also strong domain expertise in cloud and IT technologies.
So given that the benefits outweigh the challenges, what stage of the transformation journey are operators at today? Those at the cutting edge of this network transformation are still largely in PoC or limited trial phase.
The leading service providers need to strategically engage with vendor neutral systems integrator (SI) to bring scale and skills to speed up the overall transformation. So, what advice would I offer to the operators who are yet to embark on the journey? Well firstly, that they need to wake up and smell the coffee!
Web-scale first-movers like Amazon, Google, Facebook et al have undeniably proven the advantage of leveraging the economies of homogeneity in scaling their operations. For CSPs waiting on the side-lines it’s perfectly fine to start with a ‘crawl, walk, run’ rather than a ‘big bang’ approach.
For CSP’s long term success though it’s critically important to start on this journey of network transformation. Also, as previously stated opt for a best-of-breed approach rather than a best-of-suite one, as this will offer longer lasting benefits and be sure to strategically engage with a vendor neutral systems integrator.
Like the iPhone which revolutionised the smartphone app market place, SDN/NFV has the potential to stimulate a raft of new network services and network based apps that can only be dreamed about today. These new services will provide sustainable differentiation and new monetisation opportunities to service providers, allowing CSPs to innovate their networks at the speed of the software.
As an example, SDN could enable smart cities of the future to redirect network resources as needs dictate; Tech Mahindra recently conducted a PoC to show how HD CCTV cameras at the scene of a crime or incident could receive additional bandwidth enabling emergency services to arrive better equipped with real time video feeds from the scene.
With programmatic SDN/NFV infrastructure CSPs will be able to offer such new compelling services to Smart Cities, Smart Homes, Smart Enterprises and more.
In closing, it only remains to reiterate that SDN/NFV represents the future for service providers. The evidence is compelling in pointing out the overwhelming need for operators to break out from the vicious cycle of costly, inflexible and proprietary hardware towards the agile, open future promised by SDN/NFV.
There are undoubtedly barriers to deployment to overcome along the way, yet, those who last the course will reap rich rewards and establish high barriers of entry against those who delay the move too long.
About the author: Manish Singh leads Tech Mahindra’s SDN and NFV business initiative. He has over 20 years of experience specialising in wireless networks. For three consecutive years, he served on the Executive Board of Small Cell Forum.