In just a few short years, software-defined networking (SDN) has risen from academic obscurity to the most transformative business and technology trend telecom has seen in decades.
Since Google, in 2011, first demonstrated that SDN can transcend its data center origins and bring its cost and efficiency benefits to the WAN, the industry has witnessed an explosion of service provider activity around SDN applications.
Beyond Google's B4 internal data center interconnect network, here are just a few prominent examples of SDN progress in the WAN over the past couple of years:
NTT Communications Corp. (NYSE: NTT) is using SDN to connect cloud data centers spanning across ten countries around the globe. The operator first launched this service in 2013.
In September 2013, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) announced its ambitious Software-Defined Network Architecture, a transformative initiative in which AT&T is moving its network architecture from a hardware-centric to software-centric environment. It is among the boldest moves into SDN and NFV announced by any Tier 1 operator.
Hong Kong's Pacnet (now part of Australia's Telstra Corp. Ltd. (ASX: TLS; NZK: TLS)) launched what we believe is the world's first commercial optical layer SDN network in March 2015.
Most recently, in April, Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) announced its own SDN network transformation initiative along with several key technology partners that will underpin that effort.
The initial technology hype stage has passed, and operators are now grappling with the hard questions that come with concrete implementation and commercialization: How will SDN really transform the way networks are built and operated? And how will it change service creation, customization, delivery, monitoring and monetization?
Here are some of the big topics on the minds of service providers right now, based on Heavy Reading research:
Real-world use cases: Initially, vendors took a "buck shot" approach to creating use cases for service providers, with vendors and service providers having little idea what might actually be economically and/or technically viable. Now, we are seeing a strong concentration around WAN automation in general -- eliminating human touch points throughout the network to yield benefits in faster provisioning and delivery, reduced human error, and faster time to market and revenue for new services.
IP and optical integration: IP and optical integration has been discussed and debated for more than a decade with very limited deployment to date. However, SDN breathes new life into this architecture and adds a new (and significant) twist. IP and optical layers need not be physically integrated in the same chassis to yield real benefits, but rather logically integrated through software control and management. The missing element of control/management integration across layers has always been multi-vendor interoperability. This is where SDN comes in with the strong promise to finally unite these layers.
SDN for cable MSOs: While cable operators were not the very first adopters of SDN technology, over the past 18 months they have certainly become among its strongest proponents. Efforts from CableLabs, as well as individual cable operators, are pioneering SDN use cases across core, metro and DOCSIS access networks.
Security and SDN: Given that cyber security is front and center in mainstream news today, it is somewhat surprising how little discussion there has been (so far) regarding security in SDN and NFV networks. However, with use cases solidifying and some major technical hurdles cleared, we think that security will quickly move to the top of list in carrier SDN and NFV discussions during the next 12 to 18 months. It is clear that security has remained too low-key for too long, given the state of SDN today.