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Scott Petty
Group Enterprise Technology Director, Vodafone

A great deal has been written about SDN/NFV, but is there more to it than just hype? Getting to grips with the technology and where it’s going is key to a successful journey. The new technologies will enable the nature of networks to evolve, and although this change won't come overnight, organisations must start preparing for it.

When we look at network infrastructure, the big trends over the last 20 years have been designed to move us away from proprietary networks to a shared IP infrastructure based around internet protocols.

However, current networks are static by design. They are configured using a manual process and designed with 'peak hour load' in mind, resulting in an over-engineered network created to cope with the busiest hour of any day. The knock-on effect of this is significant spare capacity for the remaining 23 hours of the day. That lack of flexibility and manageability makes the network more expensive to run, more difficult to maintain and more complex than it needs to be.

A network that reconfigures itself automatically

Software Defined Networking (SDN) is an attempt by the industry to create a model where configuration elements of the network are handled through software. This approach enables the network to reconfigure itself automatically based on load conditions, network performance, or even based on specific application or security requirements.

NFV (Network Function Virtualisation) is the notion of moving away from using dedicated network hardware to a more software-designed model. This would allow for the virtualisation of the networking functions, making the network horizontally scalable, through the addition of servers when more capability is required. The big benefit here is that it would offer economies of scale and a lower unit price point for the infrastructure.

SDN and NFV are two different technologies but are often combined as they work hand-in-hand. If network functions aren't virtualised, software controls cannot be used to reconfigure the network. Also, if SDN isn't in place, it is not possible to control the virtualised nature of the network infrastructure to make configuration changes.

Adopting SDN and NFV is a fundamental change

Adopting SDN and NFV raises key challenges for any organisation, as it's a fundamental change to a business's sourcing strategy. It will mean moving away from a single vendor strategy to a more homogenised infrastructure.

This approach requires the organisation to look at how it allocates budget in a different way. For example, if you look at a current network budget versus an IT data-centre budget, about 70 per cent of the network budget is spent on the capital equipment and the maintenance and service that goes with it. Very little budget is spent on integration services to configure and put the network in place.

Conversely, if you look at an IT data-centre budget, that number is inverted. You spend less on purchasing equipment and software, but an increased amount integrating the various software packages into the network.

To move SDN and NFV into the network space, the industry needs to find a way to not replicate the IT data-centre model; otherwise the network will become more expensive and not more cost-effective.

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Businesses need to prepare a transformation programme

For this to happen, organisations need to have transformation programmes in place and think about how they can best organise themselves to leverage SDN and NFV. That may mean organisational changes or skill set upgrades within their own organisation.

A good index for most enterprise customers adopting SDN is how quickly they have moved to the cloud. Typically, if less than 20 per cent of an organisation’s data-centre is cloud native and is expected to be less than 50 per cent for the next three years, there is probably no business case for moving to SDN.

However, if it is currently 50 per cent cloud native with plans to be 75 per cent cloud native within the next three years, then absolutely the business needs to have an SDN strategy in place.

SDN’s and NFV’s success depends on network disruptors

The network industry is mature, with notable leading players, the dynamics of which haven't changed significantly over the last 20 years. If left to the network players, we will see new enhancements but the industry won't be fundamentally disrupted in the way that is probably required.

Most network vendors are not interested in open standards and interoperability between different competing models for SDN. For example, the two leading players’ solutions don't interoperate with each other, are very difficult to make work together and cannot be shared.

For SDN and NFV to succeed it needs disruption from outside the network industry, from the cloud vendors and data-centre industry, those businesses who essentially want to leverage a very flexible utility network on which to build their applications and services.

Whether they can be successful depends on how good those network disruptors are at convincing network designers and planners they should take a risk on moving to this new technology, or just wait for their existing vendors to offer some similar kind of functionality and capabilities.

Driving SDN and NFV adoption

Having one of the largest networks in the world, SDN and NFV have big operational benefits to Vodafone as a network service provider. So much so that we have heavily adopted both technologies inside our own network, as part of a programme called Vodafone Ocean. SDN is used in different areas, e. g. in core voice services. Due to the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) technology, the company can offer mobile voice calls over IP.

Vodafone is constantly monitoring the network to discover operational challenges and whether business case benefits really exist in this space. The company has built up a strong body of knowledge and capabilities and has a large plan of continued deployment over the next 12 months.

Vodafone is optimistic on SDN over the next three to five years, although has been cautious in investments to date and is aware of the challenges of moving customers in this direction, which will be driven by 5G technology.

5G has key components that really can't happen without SDN and NFV and those include low latency applications, self-healing networks and an ability to manage mobile applications at the very edge of the network using a technology called Network Slicing, used to create multiple dedicated end-to-end virtual networks.

A world of homogeneity

SDN and NFV will enable the nature of networks to evolve, leading to a world of homogeneity, where every service and operator is similar and leverages standard infrastructure and standard capabilities. Change in the nature of networks won't come overnight, but if the technology is not on your organisation’s agenda now, it’s vital it is when you next come to review the life cycle of your infrastructure – just make sure your strategy is fit for purpose.

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