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Revolution in Network Technology

SDN and NFV: Opportunities and challenges

Graham Lloyd
Head of Fixed Connectivity Product Development, Vodafone

New network technologies SDN and NFV are expected to conquer the marketplace in the upcoming years. These two new concepts revolutionise legacy systems, providing greater network control, but multinational companies adopting them have to face several challenges as well.

Network technology is evolving: although the basic technologies have been around for some time, we are only now seeing maturing, standardised products in the marketplace. Over the next few years, Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualisation (NFV) will become far more commonplace.
Today, the Wide Area Network (WAN) is a closed and static environment. While improvements have been made in automating capabilities over the years, general management and delivery is still very much a manual process delivered through individual node Command Line Interfaces.

SDN and NFV – which are quite different technologies, but are related by significant common principles – revolutionise these legacy concepts, moving networks to be driven by centralised software control capabilities that can programme the entirety of the network through a set of open APIs. In addition to greater network control, virtualisation helps reducing the cost of deploying services around the network. Moving to API-driven delivery will open up the WAN space to new service innovations and rapid deployment.

Main differences between SDN and NFV

  • SDN
    SDN can take many forms: SD-WAN is a specific take on SDN, targeted at the enterprise WAN. Through an abstracted, centralised control plane, WAN services in this instance can be set-up in real time, as needed, between end-points including customer sites, NFV services and third-party locations, such as public clouds. These overlay WAN flows provide connectivity agnostic of the underlying transport, which can be internet, MPLS, mobile, or Ethernet, for example.
  • NFV
    Looking at each area in a little more detail, NFV is associated with the cloud evolution we are seeing, driven by dynamic requirements for services. We are moving away from high cost physical appliances towards virtual capabilities which deliver the same service, but instantiated when needed and on a per-customer basis. As NFV is expected to provide a dynamic set of capabilities it also requires a dynamic network to connect them.

Rapid development of self-serve capabilities

SDN and NFV have the ability to change the market. Cloud SD-WAN providers are already starting to gain momentum, giving customers alternative options versus the traditional Telco model. The use of internet-only services and hybrid WAN instead of the solely MPLS VPN will lead to reduced telco WAN revenues, and customers expect price reductions within this model as well.

Another challenge is from the network vendors, selling directly to large enterprises. The assumption is that if you manage your WAN service at the overlay level, you can drive more cost-effective underlay services if you are prepared to run hybrid and multi-carrier solutions. This could prove appealing to organisations with larger network teams, but they can’t leave its increased complexity out of consideration.

SDL: greater real-time visibility

One of the main advantages of SDN is that it opens up the network to being controlled using open APIs without impacting the physical underlying connectivity, resulting in the rapid development of self-serve capabilities that are not easily available today for both WAN and security services. These will initially be delivered through an evolved portal but eventually, by means of API integration into the SDN and NFV service platforms, delivering even greater dynamic customer controls. Another benefit will be in providing greater real-time visibility of both transport and application performance across the network. The move from static, manually configured networks to fully dynamic service-driven solutions has already begun.

NFV: more effective data management

NFV provides the Telco greater opportunity to offer a wider range of services than possible today. Having the ability to deploy WAN, LAN, and security capabilities, both at the customer site and also at key breakout points of a network, on-demand and in-line with the traffic flow, the customer and the service provider can truly understand the data being transported and manage it better from an optimisation and security perspective. In addition, there is a revenue potential not easily accessible currently without consideration of costly, complex technology solutions and managed service arrangements.

Cost saving vs. performance vs. visibility

Before moving to an SDN solution, companies have to understand their short and mid-term objectives, their IT and business strategy, and traffic profile to make the right selections based on desired outcomes. Although SDN and NFV provide much wider selection of WAN and LAN services through a variety of new delivery and operate models, not all of these solutions will fit all companies’ IT and business strategies. They need to decide what their overall end-goal is: cost saving, performance or control and visibility.

SDN will provide a significant cost to the WAN provider to implement, and customers need to identify where they can save with the solution to mitigate the cost of implementation for their network. To make the right decisions about where to deploy SDN, organisations have to understand the sites they connect to the network, the application flows and the types of data that traverse these sites. Then the business can begin to consider how dynamic its services are, how much critical data it carries between these sites and therefore how much internet transport it is content to consume.

Another use case already mentioned is based on running SDWAN over a number of underlay providers, whether directly by the customer through a network vendor solution, such as Cisco’s iWAN or with a cloud overlay service. From a direct cost perspective, there may be clear benefits of sourcing lowest cost per site/region connectivity, but the impact to the operate model of a complex multi-carrier network and SDWAN overlay should not be considered lightly and the impact of resourcing this approach should be included in the customers’ business case from a cost, risk and skills perspective.

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Integration can bring more efficient and powerful services

Vodafone sees SDN and NFV as key technology enablers, supporting the enhancement of WAN connectivity services, providing a platform to offer far greater integration of the complete communication. Due to greater integration, more efficient and powerful services can be provided to customers.

Vodafone Ready Network provides multiple SDN and NFV capabilities, which cater for a wide range of customer preferences. Although increasing hybrid WAN models decrease the revenues of the fixed market, different technologies don’t have to extinguish each other: by effectively interworking the overlay service and the underlay bearer together, a more capable and efficient platform can be created to offer dynamic services in a more simplistic and secure operational model.

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