Carriers Must Leverage SDN and NFV for Greater Network Insight

A massive paradigm challenges deeply held beliefs on the role of carriers as service providers

Recent research suggests 90 percent of all existing data has been generated in the last three years, leaving telecom carriers to grapple with how to manage this data deluge effectively and still turn a profit. The answer may lie in Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV). Based on Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) hardware, one immediate benefit of both technologies is the potential to reduce cost, for vendors and their carrier customers. But the real value lies in the flexibility that virtualized network functions provide, and the agility that centralized software programmable control enables.

Gartner noted in its recent Magic Quadrant for Data Center Networking that search volume for the term “SDN” on gartner.com is now higher than searches for “WAN optimization,” “MPLS,” “router” and “application delivery controller.” Nav Chander, research manager of Telecom Services and Network Infrastructure at IDC, states that the rapid growth of data and video traffic, increased public and private cloud use, and the desire for faster and more agile service, point inevitably toward network virtualization. Reduced cost, increased speed, agility and flexibility: all are wins for telecoms carriers.

However, a critical question remains: in what context will the agility and flexibility of SDN and NFV be used? What intelligence will be used to make decisions? Real-time insight is the answer. When this insight reveals network activity and performance, organizations will optimize the benefits of SDN and NFV.

Scalability and Efficiency
A primary benefit carriers expect from SDN and NFV is the ability to provision services quickly with as little dependency on the network as possible. With virtualized network functions and centralized switching and routing control, it should be possible to actually move bandwidth, processing and storage resources to where they are most needed. Building this infrastructure on COTS hardware helps to reduce cost while providing scalability and efficiency.

Enterprise networks and data centers have operated this way for several years, demonstrating the benefits to processing and storage resources. Virtualization is now pervasive and supports a vast range of cloud services. Even SDN has origins in the enterprise and data center world as a means to reduce cost and improve efficiencies.

The flexibility and agility that virtualization and centralized switching and routing control promise are of great interest to carriers, who have seen some of the benefits of virtualization such as an increase in the speed of new services deployment.

Changing Carrier Roles
Carriers are looking for an approach that will provision service in a more efficient and timely manner. SDN and NFV, if fully utilized, can do just that. However, key questions need to be asked: What will trigger changes to service and network configurations? When will the capabilities of SDN and NFV be called into action? And for what purpose?

The answers may seem clear at first, yet the full benefits of SDN and NFV cannot be realized unless these questions are understood fully and answered accordingly. The obvious answer is that telecom carriers will plan and create services and then use SDN and NFV to provision them.

The telecom world is undergoing a massive paradigm shift that challenges deeply held beliefs on the role of carriers as service providers. The reality is that carriers are no longer in control of the services that are offered on their networks. Once you accept this fact, you begin to realize that the obvious answer is not necessarily the correct one. Carriers are facing the dual challenge of provisioning increasingly complex services, and of adapting to the behavior of subscribers who are increasingly consuming services from third part providers over the carriers’ networks.

Adaptation is Key
Many carriers have visions of providing more advanced services that can potentially compete with third party content sources, often termed “Over-The-Top” (OTT) providers. Meanwhile, the services from these OTT providers are increasingly driving mobile data growth.

Sandvine reports in the Global Internet Phenomena Report 2H2013 that Netflix and YouTube now account for more than 50 percent of Internet traffic on fixed networks in North America. Streaming video and a wealth of other innovations have been enabled by allowing services to be offered over the Internet, whether they are cloud services or apps for mobile devices. But the reality is that carriers, at best, will be one of a multitude of service providers running over the network.

Carrier networks face an additional challenge to supporting the rise in mobile data, as more devices are enabled to share data for machine-to-machine communications (M2M), and the Internet of Things (IoT); examples include cargo tracking, ambulance response systems, and agricultural equipment.

All the while, consumer and enterprise subscribers are becoming increasingly dependent on mobile services, using smartphones and tablets as their primary connected devices. In this environment it will be virtually impossible to control and predict how much bandwidth will be consumed, and when. Rapid adaptation to new situations is the key to survival.

Monitoring Behavior and Activity in Real Time
What services are being used, and by whom? How much bandwidth are they consuming? Real-time monitoring provides answers to these questions. The technology to do this exists today and operates at speeds up to 100 Gbps. It is also possible to capture this information to disk in real time. This allows a profile to be developed of normal network behavior over a given period of time. This profile can be used to establish thresholds or other triggers for detecting deteriorations in performance and quality, radical changes in consumption patterns or other anomalies.

By looking at both what is expected based on behavior profiles and what is actually happening in real time, the possibility exists that IT staff can determine if something unexpected has happened. While this does not provide a prediction on data consumption, it does provide a powerful capability to adapt to a change in real time.

Empowering SDN and NFV to Act
Real-time insight can improve reaction times. By monitoring network and service usage in real time and detecting anomalies, it is possible to react to unexpected situations. This is the front end to the management of SDN and NFV services. It provides the intelligence for SDN controllers and NFV management to act. This can be to reroute traffic, increase bandwidth in a certain area, change service parameters or even offer a new service or upgrade.

Wide-ranging benefits are available with this approach. The real-time information on network and service usage provides insight into Quality of Experience (QoE). This is crucial for services offered by carriers, but is also a service that can be sold to content providers utilizing the carrier network, such as OTT providers. A similar service can be offered for security, as the approach outlined above can detect anomalies that can be correlated with information from security appliances to determine if an attack is underway. The ability to offer better quality and more secure connections should be attractive to OTT service providers and their subscribers.

Answering the Skeptics
This aspect of real-time monitoring should already be solved in the SDN switches or the hypervisor, some would point out. For low speed networks, this will be possible. The challenge is implementing this capability in high-speed networks operating at 1, 10 or even 100 Gbps. There is a broad range of appliances available today that analyze real-time data for management, test, security and optimization of networks and services. These are stand-alone, physical devices with extreme processing requirements.

It is important for skeptics to keep in mind that this sort of functionality was originally available in switches and routers, but it was determined that separate dedicated network appliances were a better solution, as the processing requirements were too large for routers and switches to accommodate. With the move to COTS hardware envisioned in SDN and NFV, it is hard to see that these requirements have diminished, especially as the volume, variety and velocity of data is increasing.

Appliances can now be virtualized and run on virtual machines, skeptics may contend. This again is true for lower bandwidth applications, but at higher speeds, the virtual appliance will require significant processing resources that can threaten to consume CPU cycles that should be used by the other virtual clients the virtual appliance is supposed to be monitoring. This would seem to be counter-productive.

This should settle the argument for skeptics, as it demonstrates a definite need for physical appliances that can analyze large amounts of data in real time. To work in a virtualized environment, they will need to be virtualization-aware with the capability to distinguish virtual LANs. With these key devices in place, real-time insight into how the network and services are performing can be assured.

Positioning for Success
In a digital landscape that generates more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day, telecom carriers do not need to—and cannot afford to—wait for technology that implements real-time insight. It already exists and is ready to be deployed. Applying this technology to SDN and NFV management is not a technical hurdle, but more of a conceptual step. It involves a rethink of the role of carriers and accepting that there is no longer control over what services are being consumed on the network. This involves an acceptance that rather than being the sole cradle-to-grave provider of all communication service needs, a modern carrier needs to partner with a growing ecosystem of OTT players with a focus on maintaining customer satisfaction. In other words, ensuring that subscribers are getting what they want, the way they want it.

It is a fact of today’s interconnected ecosystem that carriers do not have control of the traffic that is running on their networks. But this is not by any means a death knell; on the contrary, it is a call to embrace all available resources to remain agile and flexible and to adapt via real-time insight. This insight into network and service usage enables organizations to create triggers that use SDN and NFV capabilities to better provide services and address issues. Real-time insights also can assure QoE and security, which can be sold as services to OTT service providers. Such integration of capabilities creates an all-encompassing approach that will position carriers for success.

About the Author
Daniel Joseph Barry is VP of Marketing at Napatech and has over 20 years experience in the IT and Telecom industry. Prior to joining Napatech in 2009, Dan Joe was Marketing Director at TPACK, a leading supplier of transport chip solutions to the Telecom sector.

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