SDN has been grabbing headlines recently for actual deployments and carrier strategies -- a pleasant change, I'd say, from conjecture, concerns and hype.
To be fair, there have been companies such as AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), NTT Communications Corp. (NYSE: NTT) and Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) that have been talking about real-world SDN for some time, and players such as Masergy Communications Inc. , which rolled out flexible services based on very SDN-like platforms they developed on their own. But now we're seeing more companies commit to an SDN strategy that are willing to publicly discuss where software-defined networking is actually headed. Level 3 Communications Inc. (NYSE: LVLT) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) are the latest two major carriers to spell out their approaches. (See Verizon Builds Key Vendors Into SDN Strategy and Level 3's SDN Play Focused on Hybrid Clouds.)
Having spent considerable time as of late talking about SDN, I have some key takeaways that I think are worth sharing. Chief among them is the realization that SDN may be derived from similar roots and built on similar reference architectures for basically the same core reasons, but it seems likely to have significantly different implementations, depending on the carrier.
Most of that is influenced by what each carrier is already doing differently, but those existing strategies are driven, in turn, by the service provider's internal priorities. Level 3, for instance, already has an internally developed dynamic bandwidth service that is built on what looks very much like an SDN infrastructure, even though it was created in advance of any industry consensus on SDN reference architectures. What the operator is focused on now is determining how best to use what it has in support of hybrid clouds, since that is where its customers are headed.
Going forward, Level 3 may well adopt some of the more "vendor-influenced" approaches to SDN, says CMO Anthony Christie, but only to the extent they fit what Level 3 wants for its customer-facing services.
"When we looked at the industry landscape -- every player was defining what they thought the problems were and what they thought the solution needed to be, based on what they had," he notes. "If you look at that environment and trends surrounding it, you approach what that ultimate solution looks like very differently."
A second takeaway: The carriers I've spoken with aren't convinced their vendors have market-ready solutions. As part of its SDN strategy announcement, Verizon named the top vendors who it says are core to its approach, and said it would be working with those vendors. But in talking about the major challenges of SDN, Verizon's Chris Emmons, director of Network Planning, Corporate Network & Technology, admitted that one of those is the lack of a total ecosystem, built on standards -- in part because those standards are still emerging.
Other early SDN deployments have been largely done internally for that reason -- NTT did much of its own integration and development work because the company felt it had to, to stay on pace with an aggressive approach to linking its global data centers in a flexible manner.
The third takeaway is that while cost savings are always mentioned in discussing SDN, they aren't the driving force for its deployment, at least not in the short term. One of the technologists I interviewed, who spoke on the record about everything else, asked not to be quoted by name when he said, "I don't see near-term capex savings for SDN, but long-term, sure, we expect to save on hardware."
What service providers do seem very focused on right now is turning up new services and chief among those seem to be on-demand offerings and greater customer control. That's where I expect to continue hearing a lot more SDN-related news in the coming months.
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading