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Enabling Technologies: Key role of SDN/NFV in restructuring network architecture

August 17, 2016

Telecom operators are increasingly looking to transform their legacy network architectures to make them data enabled. Software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualisation (NFV) solutions are set to play a key role in this transition by enabling operators to switch to software-defined platforms. This will result in enhanced operational flexibility and scalability, reduced costs for service provisioning. Industry experts share their views on the key benefits of deploying SDN and NFV, the demand drivers in India, the current level of adoption and the challenges faced in deployment…


What are the key benefits of deploying SDN and NFV?

Swapna Bapat

The bigger promise of SDN is that it will centralise and simplify control of enterprise network management. SDN provides a company with the ability to model its physical networking environment into software, which, in turn, helps in reducing the overall capex and opex. SDN does not require a huge investment; in fact, there are some SDN products that are free. Since SDN helps in virtualising most of the physical networking devices, it becomes easy to perform an upgrade for one piece rather than needing to do it for several devices. SDN also supports the management of both physical and virtual switches and network devices from a central controller.

Meanwhile, NFV decouples network functions such as network address translation, firewalling, intrusion detection, domain name service and caching from proprietary hardware appliances so they can run in software. NFV leverages IT technologies, including virtualisation, standard servers and open software to fundamentally change the way networks are built and operated. NFV provides faster time to market, new services enablement, ability to rapidly scale resources up and down, and lower costs (both capex and opex). In addition, NFV reduces the need to purchase purpose-built hardware and supporting pay-as-you-grow models to eliminate wasteful over-provisioning.

Hemant Joshi

SDN separates the control and data layer and provides opportunity to program the network at various points. Other key benefits of SDN are:

• Helps in centralising and simplifying enterprise network management control

• Enables the programmability of traffic, and provides greater flexibility to create policy-driven network supervision

• Network automation helps in keeping pace with network change.

Meanwhile, the key benefits of NFV implementation include:

• Faster time-to-market

• Easier adoption of new services

• Rapid scaling up and down of resources

• Lower capex and opex.

According to a recent report by Technology Business Research, the telecom infrastructure market in North America is set to drop from $30.4 billion in 2015 to $27.4 billion in 2021, which can be attributed to a shift in operator focus from legacy technologies to SDN and NFV.

Chandan Kumar

Telecom operators are finding it difficult to increase revenues in proportion to the increase in services or data growth, and the rise of over-the–top players is worsening the situation. In order to ensure sustainable growth, operators have no choice but to transform. SDN and NFV are the key enabling technologies for re-structuring network architecture, operations and services. They decouple software from hardware using standardised hardware platform and virtualisation technology to replace the private dedicated network elements of traditional telecom networks. SDN and NFV technologies are the key to future communication as they provide the desired flexibility and scalability required for futuristic services. These technologies will help cater to the rising demand for new, innovative and seamless services in a cost-effective manner. These technologies will also help operators consolidate their distributed IT resources and derive optimal utilisation. These technologies primarily focus on ease of integration of new services and will thus help reduce the time to market by up to 80 per cent.

In addition, these technologies will help operators create an open environment in their network to host a variety of services in the least time, thus removing the rigidity that exists in their networks at present. These technologies will also empower them to be in a better position to handle any threats from new or existing competitors. Besides, they will equip operators to venture into multiple new revenue streams like machine-to-machine and internet of things.

Tanveer Mohammad

SDN and NFV technologies have the potential to revolutionise mobile operator networks. NFV helps in decoupling network functions from being dependent on dedicated hardware. It also allows network services that are being delivered through routers, firewalls, load balancers and other hardware devices to be hosted on virtual machines. Once the network functions are under the control of the hypervisor, the services can be performed on standard x86 servers. As a result, network administrators will no longer need to purchase dedicated equipment to build a service chain. This will reduce both capex and opex since server capacity upgrades are software dependent. In the global scenario, where the focus is shifting from being cost-effective to being well-timed, NFV also helps in reducing the time-to-market. In case of faults, there is zero downtime and with the internet of things (IoT) becoming big, vertical integration will also become easier.

What is the current level of adoption of SDN/ NFV in India? What is the global scenario?

Swapna Bapat

In India, enterprises are showing a lot of interest in SDN and NFV, and these technologies may soon witness significant adoption. There are some specific industry verticals that are adopting SDN and NFV. NFV entered a phase of extensive field trials in 2015 and initial commercial deployments are expected from this year onwards. However, it might take a little longer for SDN. The growth of 3G, the ongoing roll-out of 4G telephony and government-backed initiatives like Digital India will lead to increased adoption of SDN and NFV in India. Both SDN and NFV are relatively new initiatives in the Indian context, but several telecom operators have already started engaging with vendors to better understand the potential benefits and deployment scenarios.

The good and bad thing is that India is a phase later than that in the US. By virtue of this, in India, there is always a first tier demand and a second tier demand. So we have a lot of time bandwidth to learn from the experience of the US market.

Hemant Joshi

The adoption of these solutions depends on the awareness of their benefits and the return on investment. Going forward, operators are likely to proactively adopt these technologies considering that these are critical for networks.

The surge in demand for data and the growing mobile customer base will help in increasing the adoption of these technologies. According to a joint study by Juniper Networks and the International Data Corporation, 63 per cent of large enterprises in India plan to deploy SDN as part of their network architecture in 2016. Managed services, data centres and cloud services in the IT/IT-enabled sectors will be the early adopters  of these technologies.

Chandan Kumar

Investments in these technologies have more than doubled from 2011 to 2015, and this trend is likely to continue. Operators are looking at these technologies to transform their core network to support the change in user demands and be ready for future network development strategies because they offer great efficiency, convenience and responsiveness. In November 2012, seven of the world’s leading telecom operators, including AT&T, BT, Orange and Deutsche Telekom, set up the industry specification group for NFV.

The world’s leading operators have devised network transformation strategies based on NFV and SDN. For example, AT&T’s domain 2.0 vision outlines the carrier’s goal to virtualise 75 per cent of its network by 2020. Spain-based broadband and telecommunications provider Telefonica has unveiled its NFV initiative, called UNICA, which has multiple aims, including building SDN-capable networks, deploying cloud-based telecom services, realising agile deployment for telecom services and universal cloud services, giving users on-demand access to these services and simplifying network control.

Tanveer Mohammad

We expect most of the core deployments to gradually move to NFV. Features such as internet protocol multimedia subsystem and voice over long term evolution (VoLTE) are likely to be the first choice in NFV. As part of its vision to offer internet for all and enrich the lives of its customers with relevant digital services, Telenor has been actively evaluating NFV/SDN-based network deployment.

What are the primary challenges faced by operators in deploying SDN and NFV? How can these be overcome?

Swapna Bapat

SDN and NFV were relatively new terms a year ago and the customers, while interested, preferred to adopt the wait-and-watch approach. The industry’s switch to SDN and NFV requires not only network architecture changes, but also business model and organisational changes. The biggest challenge that SDN and NFV currently face is the misconception that companies associate with the technology. It is perceived that SDN only applies to data centre networking, while in reality SDN applies to all forms of networking and networking services.

Telecom operators in India face a unique challenge. With major funds being deployed for acquiring spectrum, companies have limited capacities to invest in new technologies like SDN and NFV. There is limited scope for network modernisation or expansion, and a choice will have to be made between one of those.

Hemant Joshi

There are many challenges faced by operators in deploying SDN and NFV. The key among these are bridging the technical skill gap and ensuring sufficient returns on investment from implementing these technologies. Some other challenges are:

• Integration of SDN with legacy networks

• Adoption of technology

• Security

• Total cost of ownership.

However, SDN and NFV can help operators overcome poor network quality and call drop issues. The Digital India initiative along with the digital transformation of small and medium enterprises and public organisations will encourage operators to adopt these technologies.

Chandan Kumar

The primary challenge for operators is to understand the difference in architecture of these new technologies with legacy systems. In these new technologies, hardware and software are de-coupled. NFV and SDN enable operators to redesign themselves, moving away from being engineering-led, network-focused organisations towards being data-centric businesses. But in doing so, it will lead to a fundamental change in the way networks are controlled, which will necessitate a completely different approach to network and employee management. Network engineers and support teams that have worked with physical infrastructure for decades will need to redesign their existing processes. Operators will need to consider staff training to ensure the workforce also makes the transition from a physical to virtualised environment.

Finally, operators are evaluating the feasibility of synchronising the working of SDN/NFV in parallel with the existing legacy systems that they have accumulated over a long period of time. Many solutions have already been proposed for this, the most popular being the pooling of NFV and non-NFV platforms. No matter how operators transform their networks, they must have a multi-layer strategy for reliability backed by innovative technology to deliver five 9s (99.999 per cent) carrier–grade reliability after the adaptation to NFV.

Tanveer Mohammad

Being a software-based solution, one of the key challenges in deploying SDN and NFV is to get operator-grade stability and performance metrics as compared to a conventional bare metal solution. As the software and hardware are procured separately, there is a need for a different commercial arrangement as well as a fresh life-cycle management model. We believe that infrastructure solution providers and operators need to work closely to come out with a relevant solution.

How is the SDN/NFV landscape likely to evolve in India? What will be the key demand drivers?

Swapna Bapat

Organisations including enterprises, service providers, data centres and cloud hosting companies can benefit greatly from the efficiencies enabled by SDN. In the case of SDN, the first step is incremental migration, where businesses start small, gradually transferring non-critical workloads that are identified as most suitable to the SDN infrastructure. This helps businesses in identifying the effect that the movement to SDN will have on their existing systems and minimise risk. Traffic filtering and load balancing can also be smoothly migrated to perform software-managed tasks.

The major factors that will drive the demand for SDN and NFV are improved time-to-market, reduction in capex and opex, and the opening up of new revenue streams from a business standpoint. From an operations standpoint, network elasticity, multi-tenancy and ease of operations are the key drivers. The growth of 3G, ongoing roll-out of 4G services and government-backed initiatives like Digital India will lead to increased adoption of SDN and NFV. The increased competition on account of the entry of new players in the domestic market and the availability of emerging technologies will propel the demand for SDN.

Hemant Joshi

SDN and NFV have good scope in India, and are likely to attract sufficient investments. We believe that the key demand drivers will be cloud adoption, data explosion and converged services.

Chandan Kumar

India’s data growth is remarkable and to cater to this, adaptation to new technologies will be paramount. Agility, responsiveness and time-to-market are the key elements for operators to sustain growth in the increasingly competitive Indian telecom market. In this context, a reduction in the operating cost by SDN/NFV technologies can provide key leverage to operators over the competitors. These technologies can help operators in reducing the hardware and software requirements of their current networks and platforms. Going forward, operators are looking at creating more services and value through cloud-based networks.

Tanveer Mohammad

The changing service delivery paradigms are driving SDN and NFV deployments. The highly competitive telecom market requires agile teams that come out with faster go-to-market solutions to meet the demands of customers. Demand from analytics, value-added services, VoLTE and subscriber database management will create the momentum for the initial deployments of NFV and SDN solutions. As operators go in for network modernisation and replacement of legacy equipment to move from a voice-centric network towards a data-centric one, these software-based solutions are likely to be evaluated seriously.


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