Service Providers Making Headway on SDN

Software Defined Networking (SDN) technology has offered a little bit of everything for everyone: Hype, promise, and challenges. After many years of the hype, the promise has so far exceeded the productivity for service providers. But that may be about to change.

At the recent Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF) event held in Washington D.C. in late November, GEN14, network operators were given the chance to share their respective outlooks, and discuss the challenges in a public forum.

Software Defined Networking (SDN) technology has offered a little bit of everything for everyone: Hype, promise, and challenges. After many years of the hype, the promise has so far exceeded the productivity for service providers. But that may be about to change.

At the recent Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF) event held in Washington D.C. in late November, GEN14, network operators were given the chance to share their respective outlooks, and discuss the challenges in a public forum.

Service provider engineering experts have recently expressed frustration with the slow pace of innovation in proprietary networking software, and they are now getting more serious about testing new SDN and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) technologies in real-world trials. One example of this is the recent news that Verizon has embarked on a large SDN trial of “white box” servers.

The idea behind both SDN and NFV is that more networking services can run on standard server hardware, displacing complex and proprietary networking hardware. Much of the software emerging in the SDN arena is open source, following trends in data center technology. With open-source technology and virtualization already widely implemented in the data center, service providers are now looking to use this model in their own networks.

“SDN is a set of technologies that is essentially in play today,” said Randy Nicklas, Executive Vice President of Engineering at Windstream Communications, during a panel session at GEN14. “The network is programmable in data centers. Expanding that between data centers is a work in progress.”

“Looking at Carrier Ethernet, it’s a solid and mature business,” pointed out Axel Clauberg, Vice President at Deutsche Telekom. This is the part at which we talk about SDN and NFV. It’s less mature. Some people say it’s a hype. For the future, we really have to focus on cleaning up the legacy which has aggregated in our IP network. We have to go clean up. Somewhere the services has to be produced. If it’s not in the routers, maybe it’s the data centers which we can tightly couple with the network.”

It was clear from the MEF meetings that there is a wide range of experimentation going on. Many service providers are toying with various SDN and NFV technologies, all of which offer the promise of building a network based on standard, open hardware connected by flexible modular software components.

So how do we move from trials to the real world? Many service provider experts said part of the delay is due to the slow development of standards that will be key for SDN and NFV deployment. It was clear from the discussions and interactions at panels that tracking the volume of standards can be mind-boggling — at least 5-6 major standards organizations are involved in developing new specifications of SDN or NFV, including the MEF, ETSI, IETF, ONF, OIF, and others.

“For me it’s important to have open interfaces,” Clauberg of DT said, adding that open standards take a long time to develop. Nevertheless, he said, “Open source takes a key role.”

Translation: Open source might be a popular alternative to standards by committees, simply because they move faster. To this end, it seems likely that open data center technologies such as OpenStack and Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM) are likely to penetrate more deeply into telecom.

David Hughes, Vice President of Engineering for PCCW Global said that what’s really happening is that the telecom paradigm is being shaken up by the cloud services model. In cloud services, a customer goes online, signs up and provisions a service how they want it and when they want it.

“We want to move to the Burger King model, ‘Have it your way,’ said Hughes. “We don’t want the old telecom model which is, ‘This is how it is.'”

In fact, it’s likely to be the Burger King model that pushes the service providers forward into SDN and NFV, as surging demand for cloud applications forces a rethink of how they roll out services and applications.