SDN is moving beyond the hype as mobility and cloud demand push service providers to find a way to scale their networks when ARPU is mostly flat. This shift is leading many proponents of open source to suggest that 2015 is the year for SDN -- but challenges still abound.
According to IHS Infonetics, in a 2014 survey of carriers that control 51% of the worldwide capex, 97% intend to deploy software-defined networking (SDN) and 93% intend to deploy network functions virtualization (NFV). However, the question many service providers are asking themselves today is, "Will it be worth it?"
This question was one of the many questions up for discussion during the Open Networking Foundation half-day summit ahead of Big Telecom Event -- and not an easy question to answer.
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"It's about investment and priorities and determining the priorities for individual service providers. Verizon and AT&T are pushing forward," said Marc Cohn, senior vice president of marketing at ClearPath Networks and member of the ONF senior leadership. He added that China Mobile Communications Corp.
and China Unicom Ltd.
(NYSE: CHU) are deploying SDN on a huge scale. "It's like nothing we are seeing anywhere else," he said.
At the same time, OEMs are being transformed and some are beginning to embrace the potential risks of openness because their end users are demanding that suppliers open up the network, said Cohn. "We don't know what everyone is going to do," he said. "However, the interest level from many operators suggests that suppliers are going to need to adapt and evolve quickly as the space unfolds."
While most of the panelists and speakers at the ONF summit made the case for SDN, the challenge comes in making it a reality, admitted Dan Pitt, executive director of ONF. "It's going to be a little bit of a Wild West for a while," he said.
For sure, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) is training hundreds of thousands of its engineers as part of its AT&T University. But not all providers are able to take on such a huge program.
Plus -- not to be taken lightly -- OSS transformation is a massive problem for large service providers, said Caroline Chappell, senior analyst at Heavy Reading. "The small operators are different, but at the large operators, that is the challenge. The OSS people say they are not going to be able to do it [because of the organizational overlap] so it's pretty impossible."
Nima Salehi, manager of Enterprise Business Services at the Telus Corp. (NYSE: TU; Toronto: T) CTO Office, supported Chappell there saying, "Every operator has their own set of issues. SDN is like any new technology. In the first few years, the use cases are problem-driven."
As the lone service provider on the ONF panel, Salehi provided some perspective on the notion of openness. "The challenge is about the technology maturity and openness," he said. "In reality, most of the good commercial products all have a vendor lock-in flavor. That notion of openness is not there. We have to invest a good bit to get any of them to talk together."
In terms of SDN, under the notion of open networking, vendors today are more willing to work together because they recognize the need to reduce the cost of their technologies, said Chappell. "In the operator space, they were excited about SDN and NFV, but the theme is that the organization is not ready from an IT standpoint," she said, ticking off a short list of necessary items that included an "army of programmers" and "hardware lifecycle management."
"The OSS guys are sucking their teeth for good reasons because the network can't go down because they can't put their job on the line that like," she said.
If you add to Chappell's essentials list the problems of existing infrastructure migration and support for BSS, coupled with the fact that for network operators, the network is their business, you get a clear idea of the magnitude of the challenges ahead.
— Elizabeth Miller Coyne, Editor, The New IP