SDN is an evolution, not a revolution

Julie Kunstler/Ovum
19 Mar 2013

OFC/NFOEC opened in Anaheim on Sunday, with workshops and Ovum’s analyst panel on the status and future of SDN (software-defined networking). The term SDN permeated pre-show product announcements, and we expect it to be a dominant theme throughout the conference.

During the panel discussion, entitled Software-Defined Networking (SDN) Status and Outlook, Ovum’s analysts tackled the ubiquitous but elusive concept of SDN and what it means for service providers and vendors.

There are numerous ways to define SDN, but there is also some consensus around its intended benefits – namely, improving network utilization and the management of applications over networks. Improving network utilization leads to lower costs, thereby improving financials. It is a simple concept, although not simple to implement given the complexity of the networks managed by major communications service providers, along with growing bandwidth demands by subscribers and the movement to cloud-based applications.

The real value of SDN comes from changing how applications run over networks. Higher-layer application functions will become integrated with lower layers of the network, leading to two-way application awareness. The network will be able to adapt to changing application requirements efficiently and effectively. In other words, applications will be able to dictate what the network needs to do to support them.

This type of application awareness requires an open network – open across the network infrastructure, packet switch fabric, optical switch fabric, and optical transport fabric. This implies APIs (application programming interfaces) for all products by all vendors. But it is highly unlikely that a vendor will offer a complete set of APIs, providing another vendor with access to its product control and management features. Rather, we will see partial interoperability or islands of interoperability.

The old networking paradigm is not working as cloud- and video-centric applications drive traffic and competition from OTT (over-the-top) players continues to increase. Service providers are facing declining revenue streams. They must improve network utilization while adding applications that increase revenues. Service providers will adopt SDN on a piecemeal basis, fixing the biggest pain points first.

Bottom line – SDN is real, but it will evolve into service providers’ networks. It is an evolution, not a revolution.

Julie Kunstler is a principal analyst for components at Ovum. For more information, visit

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