SDN: cutting through the complexity

John C. Tanner
telecomasia.net

If Gartner’s July 2014 hype cycle report is anything to go by, network virtualization technologies like SDN have passed the hype peak and are now plummeting back down to reality. Which is a good thing. Operators who have looked closely at SDN now realize its potential to give them the agility they need to survive as their legacy business models are rendered increasingly obsolete in the all-IP era of clouds and digital content.

However, they’ve also come to realize that while network virtualization will be a key enabler to transform their networks into nimble cost-effective platforms, actual implementation will be nowhere near as simple or easy as SDN-themed PowerPoints might make it sound.

That point was brought home at a NetEvents conference in Phuket earlier this year, when Gint Atkinson, VP of network strategy at KVH, described the dilemma facing operators who are relying more on data services to grow their business at a time when data prices are dropping faster than the rate of traffic growth. Put simply, he said, business as usual is not an option.

“You’re dead meat if you keep on that dimension right there,” he said. “[Looking at] SDN, we need to do relatively real-time fast service composition, service chaining, enable new characteristics so we can bundle service components together to create new revenue packages where the cost per bit isn’t so directly critical. We’ve got to get away from selling connectivity and start selling connectivity solutions. Whatever it looks like, it better not be too concerned with cost per bit.”

The problem is that while SDN promises to deliver just that, it’s a lot easier to do in a data center than it is in an operator’s WAN.

“If we just go onto optical SDN, it is amazingly simple and complete, and it delivers on the vision. But when you look at KVH, who is provisioning a service that is going to be sold to a customer and every little touch and turn of the knob is attached to a service order, that’s really different to the web-scale operators who are building out an optical network that will get stitched into their web-based service,” Atkinson said.

“They don’t have customer systems that are integrated with, for example, our orchestration systems coming in at Layer 3, Layer 2 down to Layer 0 and trying to do multilayer sliced vertical networks. They get to just cut right through all of that complexity. And they don’t need to sell connectivity, they just sell the whole thing to their customers.”

All of which arguably speaks volumes about the Gordian knot of legacy architectures and business models that’s holding back telcos in the first place.

While that may sound like grim news for SDN’s prospects in the telecoms space, it doesn’t actually negate the future role of network virtualization in the telecoms space. What it means, according to SDN vendors contacted by SDN Insights, is that operators have to plan for network virtualization very carefully, develop a workable strategy to implement it in a way that makes sense for their specific network, and - most importantly - pick the right partners to execute that strategy.

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