is SDN a game changer for network service providers, or should they focus on NFV?

SDN is currently one of the most talked about technology topics in the telecoms industry. There are some very good reasons for this as the separation of functions from hardware promises to significantly reduce capital expenditure and operating costs while bringing agility and flexibility to the services that service providers can offer.

However, within telecoms companies, SDN is currently seen as impacting the data center, not wide area networks.  Announcements from suppliers such as Cisco , Juniper, Brocade and others in this space have focused on data center infrastructure.

This is hardly surprising as telcos are unlikely to embark on wholesale replacement of installed infrastructure until a clear upgrade path is available. For example, here at Orange Business we have over 330,000 end points on our network, each with a Cisco router connected to our global transport network. Until we see routers that can act as both ‘legacy’ and ‘SDN’ appliances we are unlikely to start rolling out SDN capabilities in the wide area network.

why NFV is a more practical approach

We see Network Function Virtualization (NFV) are a more practical approach. Since we have made the investment, when we want to implement a function, our first thought is to use our Cloud infrastructure to run virtualized instances of what would have previously been dedicated appliances. Our Cloud is becoming a multi-service shared platform so delivers a lot of the benefits of SDN with no disruption to the core networking services.

what functions are ripe for virtualization?

The good news is that a lot of the technology vendors now deliver both a hardware and a virtual appliance version of their offerings. Some examples:

  • we run our unified communications offer, Business Together as a Service, on Cisco virtual appliances within our cloud data centers which sit in main network hubs
  • security appliances have gone virtual as well - we run our shared regional internet gateways on virtual Juniper appliances which means that we can spin up a logically seperate security infrastructure for each customer that wants internet connectivity
  • for optimisation and performance management, service providers have been building functions from vendors like Riverbed and Akamai into the virtualization platforms and we can connect our customers to those service providers and provide the 'other end' of the perfomance management service.

what does the future hold?

The view from where I sit within a group that runs both in-country operations and the largest global network is that SDN will rapidly (next 2 years) become the preferred platform for building new data centers and for local infrastructure projects (metro ethernet, high speed internet access etc.) but we will see a much slower uptake of SDN platforms in the international networking market.

For the global players, my money is on the progressive virtualisation of functions away from the transport infrastructure and in to multi-service platforms located in network hubs and SDN is then used to refresh the core transport and access layers. So, to answer my original question, it's not 'either/or' but 'both'.

But what do you think?


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Peter Glock

With management roles in sales, marketing, and strategy I have over 30 years in IT and telecoms specializing in transformation projects.