Why SDN is now a DevOps play

John C. Tanner
19 Oct 2016

From a pure telecoms perspective, it seems as though software-defined networking (SDN) is one of those strange technology segments that Asia-Pacific telco executives get really excited about, but not to the point of actually deploying it in their networks. In the past few years in APAC, we’ve seen plenty of SDN trials but very few commercial deployments outside of the data center environments in which SDN originated.

That’s now starting to change to an extent. A handful of carriers such as Telstra, NTT Communications, Verizon Enterprise Solutions and MyRepublic have launched leading-edge SDN-based services. And the going theory among various industry analysts is that such launches will serve as the catalyst for other operators to finally take the plunge with SDN once they see real-world examples of SDN success - and by “success” they mean “revenue generation”.

That’s a significant detail. For all the hoopla over SDN enabling telcos to architect super-flexible cloud-based networks that deliver increased efficiencies and cost savings - all of which is essentially true - it turns out that what telcos really want to know is how SDN will earn its keep in terms of new revenue streams. Put another way, telcos want to earn money, not simply save it.

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By no coincidence, some equipment vendors have been altering (or emphasizing) their marketing pitch by focusing on the role of SDN in service innovation and creation - and specifically within the context of developing a “DevOps” operating framework that enables service providers to develop, test and release software (which is to say, services) faster and more frequently - ideally in seconds, rather than days or weeks.

Put simply, the selling point of SDN is not agility and efficiency for its own sake, but the ability to monetize it. And that dovetails nicely with the trend of more and more organizations adopting a DevOps approach to service innovation.

DevOps focus

DevOps has been a growing trend in the cloud/IT tech space for some time. At its core, DevOps (shorthand for “development and operations”) involves better collaboration and cooperation between the organizational departments responsible for creating and implementing software and services. The DevOps concept is strikingly relevant in the telecoms world as operators not only head deeper into the cloud paradigm where just about everything is software-based and hosted in data centers, but also look for ways to unsilo their organizational processes in the name of agility and faster time-to-market.

In fact they don’t have much choice, because that overall paradigm shift is changing the world in which telcos must operate, says Abel Tong, senior director for the Blue Planet Division at Ciena.

“Mobile, cloud and the Internet of Things (IoT) are bringing new applications and expectations requiring new network services,” he says. “Network operators must respond quickly and roll out new and advanced services to meet market demands. That requires incorporating new technologies and capabilities, but without jeopardizing or interrupting current and existing services. Flexibility and speed are paramount. At the same time, network operators must hit this continually moving target while holding the line on costs.”

Consequently, Tong says, “SDN, NFV and DevOps are seen as the means by which network operators can achieve innovation and taking control of their networks.”

The SDN/DevOps connection stems from the basic concept that DevOps is fundamentally about bringing development and operations silos closer together through close collaboration and communication, and taking the pain out of bringing new software and services to market, explains Francois Lemarchand, SDN strategic product director at Ericsson.

“A cornerstone for enabling DevOps is to tighten the loop between development and operations by frequent and incremental updates, fast feedback, and quick turnaround of issues,” Lemarchand says.

That’s hard to do on traditional telecoms networks where the network topology is hard-wired and network functions are built on custom hardware with long release cycles. The end result is that development and operations are effectively separated from each other, which means much longer planning and testing periods.

“With SDN/NFV, network elements are virtualized and the network topology is software defined, effectively taking hardware and physical network manipulation out of the picture, allowing much more frequent updates and closing the loop between development and operations much faster,” says Lemarchand.

Tong of Ciena says the shift in focus on SDN from flexibility and efficiencies to service creation isn’t so much a change in direction as a natural progression. “The original vision of SDN was around the agility and programmability of network flows. The vision today builds on the previous, but is more holistic - leveraging the programmability to achieve simplified and automated service delivery, to streamline operators and to shorten innovation cycles.”

A match made in heaven

Pairing a DevOps strategy with SDN deployment doesn’t necessarily alter the way the latter technology is deployed, but the synergies between the two can yield definitive benefits, says Andrew Dolganow, head of Regional Product Management, Strategy and Consulting Engineering for IP/Optical Networks, Asia Pacific, at Nokia.

“With adoption of the DevOps mindset and tools, powered by an operational shift to SDN/NFV, service providers are bridging the gap between IT demands and network services with network and service automation that allows new applications and business models to be quickly deployed, market-tested and fine-tuned,” he says. “SDN and NFV create a real elastic network environment with centralized programmability and rapid new deployment of functionality that is critical for DevOps.”

Dolganow adds that the combination of SDN/NFV and DevOps helps them achieve transformation in areas such as minimizing time to market and costs.

“With DevOps automation tools, SDN/NFV simplifies operations for rapid service instantiation,” he says. “Service providers can create network services in less than half the time and provision them in seconds. By integrating resources, moving compute/edge functions from PNF [physical network functions] to VNF and choosing open source software platforms, service providers gain significant cost and time to market advantages.”

However, says Tong of Ciena, telcos should remember that the key to getting the maximum benefit of fast service creation with SDN is orchestration.

“First, network operators need an implementation that provides end-to-end orchestration - in other words, the ability to simplify and automate the delivery of services from enterprise-to-enterprise or enterprise-to-cloud, across multiple domains such as WAN, NFV and cloud,” Tong explains. “Second, network operators need an implementation they can use to create reusable building blocks that can be quickly assembled into new services. Third, network operators need an implementation that allows them to reallocate and apply resources where needed to drive changes into their networks and to their services quickly and with minimal regression testing. And finally, network operators need an implementation that is open, enabling collaboration between internal, vendor and third party partners.”

That way, he adds, operators can not only achieve network agility through streamlined operations and automated service delivery, but also innovate rapidly while having more control over their service creation, and drive changes into their networks, operations and services more easily, while simultaneously accommodating growth and scale.

Cultural challenges

The good news for operators is that coupling SDN within the context of a DevOps framework doesn’t necessarily make deployment of SDN harder from a technical standpoint. Which is to say, many of the technical issues of deploying SDN are the same regardless of whether telcos are adopting a DevOps strategy or not.

That said, the main challenge for both deploying SDN and adopting a DevOps framework have more to do with organizational culture than technology, says Ericsson’s Lemarchand.

“To move away from a traditional organization - with a large group of people planning and verifying network upgrades before roll-out, using big labs for acceptance testing, etc - into a DevOps organization with daily incremental changes in a live network requires both new structures and a different mindset,” Lemarchand says.

Dolganow of Nokia agrees. “DevOps brings a culture change to service providers. Two or even more organizations need to work together. For instance, under DevOps, network engineers and application engineers need to work together to manage the increasingly important relationship between the network and the specific applications it supports.”

One challenge, he observes, is isolation of DevOps from network/cloud infrastructure. “In some cases, DevOps takes place independently of a network/cloud. Then it is added dynamically into that ecosystem with none or minimal involvement from the network.”

Other challenges include integrating skillsets and coping with budget changes, Dolganow adds. “The structure of budgets is changing, and some service providers have not figured out how to align that with the shift in types of technology.”

Ciena’s Abel Tong advises that there are also certain technological challenges to be aware of - namely in terms of what a given technology solution can or cannot deliver in terms of SDN, NFV and DevOps.

“Many of the solutions offered by vendors are point solutions, not general purpose orchestration - vendors with NFV products or specific networking solutions provide solutions for their specific offering, but not necessarily general end-to-end service orchestration across WAN, virtualization and cloud,” Tong says. “Other solutions require a high degree of customization and professional services engagement - this is common from legacy OSS and other vendors trying to repurpose their existing software solutions. And, some solutions end up leading to vendor lock-in - certain networking vendors are not open and using software as a thinly veiled mechanism for ensuring incumbency.”

It’s all about revenue

On an encouraging note, the pairing of SDN and DevOps isn’t confined to white papers and lab experiments. A number of operators are already deploying SDN with a DevOps strategy to speed up service innovation. Ciena points to CenturyLink and Orange leveraging its Blue Planet platform to that end. In China, China Mobile has been designing and building a new DevOps private cloud architecture by combining open source software with Nokia’s Nuage Virtualized Services Platform, while MyRepublic recently launched an SD-WAN service that enables enterprise customers to create their own VPNs to remote locations in days instead of months.

At the end of the day, it’s all about the ability of SDN to help service providers and their customers create and deliver new apps and services really, really fast. That is what’s going to spur adoption of SDN for telcos, says Andrew Bond-Webster, VP of Asia-Pacific for Infinera.

“This is the real value proposition for SDN for service providers now,” he says. “We’re moving away from the value proposition of better network efficiencies - telcos are looking for what they can take to market, because they face so much competition now, so they need solutions to help them win.”

Bond-Webster adds that Infinera is seeing a lot more interest in SDN technologies in Asia-Pacific - especially in emerging markets that have previously been reticent about SDN, seeing no immediate need for it - because the path to monetizing it is more clear.

“The RFPs we’re seeing have more SDN components than before - they want to know how to integrate SDN into their environment,” he says. “In Vietnam, for example, service providers are now saying, ‘Tell me what you have for SDN, because I’m going to want to deploy it in 2017 or 2018, so I need to understand your hardware roadmap and platforms for long-haul, DCI and metro and where SDN fits as part of your overall solution’. So we’re seeing more clear plans to move to implement SDN in the next 18 to 36 months.”

Bond-Webster emphasizes that it’s the revenue angle that is driving momentum and convincing CFOs to invest in SDN rather than network efficiencies and opex savings. “The two things they’re really looking for is not the elegant efficiencies you get with SDN, but how to defend existing revenues and grow new business. That’s what they want.”

This article was first appeared on Telecom Asia SDN Insights October 2016 Edition

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