SDN: A new dawn

SDN: A new dawn

The race to deploy software defined networking is underway. But which major global carriers are starting to pull away from the pack?


By 2017, 17 of the world’s 20 largest Tier 1 operators will have adopted software defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualisation (NFV) technologies, according to a recent report from Technology Business Research. SDN solutions and platforms are cropping up in abundance across the wholesale market, but it is the Tier 1 players with the biggest battle on their hands. Vast global networks require much larger investments in SDN, heightening the pressure on Tier 1 carriers to execute effective deployment strategies. 

This year has seen the emergence of the first commercial SDN offerings from a number of Tier 1 carriers. Here for the first time, Capacity analyses the short and long term visions of those carriers looking to make a mark with SDN. 


AT&T: first mover advantage? 

AT&T was one of the biggest operators to publicise its SDN strategy back in March last year. Often criticised for being conservative, the US giant seemingly wanted to make a statement with its commitment to the technology by being the first out of the door with its strategy.

At the heart of its SDN offering is the Network on Demand platform, which was launched in September 2014 and allows it to control and manage various virtualised network elements. The carrier has used this to launch a range of services, including a Switched Ethernet Service on Demand and more recently a Managed Internet Service on Demand service. 

The latter has been set up in partnership with network solutions provider Brocade: “We’re virtually managing the customer edge router from Brocade. This allows the customer to deploy their internet service rapidly, change bandwidth dynamically, and enjoy flexible billing,” says Roman Pacewicz, SVP of AT&T marketing and global strategy. “Both the provider edge router and customer router are virtualised in AT&T’s Integrated Cloud, enabling new site implementations in days and reconfiguration in minutes.”

The service will be available in select US cities later this fall, with plans to expand the service by the end of the year.

In early October it also went on to launch a Network Functions on Demand service, which it claims breaks the traditional appliance based premise networking model. “Customers don’t have to buy multiple boxes. It significantly simplifies and reduces the total cost of ownership for on-site networking.  Customers can deploy virtualised network functions either at their location on an X86 networking appliance or in AT&T’s Integrated Cloud (AIC),” says Pacewicz. “We are working with Cisco, Juniper, Brocade and other networking technology companies to enable these virtualised functions.”

AT&T hopes SDN will help the industry move to a more sustainable business model, where networks are no longer dependent on developing switches, routers and other physical gear over a number of years. Traffic volume on AT&T’s network increased 100,000% from January 2007 to December 2014 and video traffic doubled on its mobile network in 2014. “To stay ahead of that growth we have to rethink how we build and manage our network,”Pacewicz says. “We are transitioning to an architecture where we use software to provide functionality and scalability on inexpensive and replaceable hardware.”

The challenge of SDN is not just technological: “It’s cultural. We need to rethink how we design, develop and deploy new products and services. We are adopting the skills and mentality of a web company,” says Pacewicz.

And the company certainly seems to be adopting this mind-set at speed. AT&T has a 2,000-strong team focussed solely on building its software-defined architecture, and has also reorganised 130,000 employees to bridge its IT and network operations and speed up software release. 

It is also investing heavily in retraining existing staff and a further 110,000 AT&T employees – 39% of its overall workforce – are enrolled in training courses.

“Our goal is to virtualise and control over 75% of our target network architecture using this new software-centric approach by 2020,” Pacewicz says. “We’ve catalogued the hundreds of network functions that we manage, and decided which will be relevant in the future and which are becoming obsolete.”


Level 3 Communications: strength in enterprise 

Level 3 Communications is turning to SDN to strengthen its already impressive enterprise offering. The company launched its SDN-based platform, Adaptive Network Control (ANC) solutions, in May 2015, in a bid to help its enterprise customers develop their own telecoms services on demand and in real-time.

The service provides enterprises with granular visibility of network performance and utilisation, giving them the power to define where they want their data and assets to reside. The company firmly advocates its global Ethernet platform as the ideal architecture to power SDN. Enterprises want to control their own business fates and Level 3 believes it has responded with the tools and intelligence needed to do so. Its existing SDN-based platform offers a number of capabilities including Enhanced Management and Dynamic Capacity. 

The company said in a statement that its Enhanced Management provides greater transparency and visibility into the network than historically offered by service providers. 

It is designed to enable enterprises to quickly see detail by network segment and class of service, providing insights into latency and other metrics for ease of network administration and cost-planning. 

The existing Dynamic Capacity offering is designed to help enterprises scale their bandwidth up or down without service disruption, and the company is progressing this idea of flexible networking with its future goals. Named Dynamic Connections and Dynamic Prioritisation, these tools will enable customers to add connections from their private network to cloud partners on demand, as well as shift bandwidth between different applications based on their level of priority. 

In the long-term, the company talks of Level 3 Dynamic Network Functions which are designed to provide enterprises with even greater service flexibility. 

This will enable enterprises to add networking capabilities such as managed router, broader security overlays and applications, on demand. 


NTT Communications: developing expertise in-house

NTT Communications’ SDN strategy is notable for its focus on developing technology in-house. 

In fact it claims to have been developing components of SDN for the past 15 years.  

It has a vast internal development team working on its SDN strategy and, in May 2014, it made one of its biggest announcements to date - by launching one of the industry’s first cloud-based network services that leverage SDN and NFV. 

The services were designed to accelerate service delivery, reduce the costs of enterprise networking and eliminate long-term contract commitments. 


The service was supported by a number of strategic investments made by NTT in the cloud and data centre space over the past few years. The operator indicated in August that it plans to pursue further acquisitions to heighten its focus on the enterprise segment. Michael Wheeler, EVP and head of the global IP network business unit at NTT Communications, explains how NTT’s internal SDN platform enables its enterprise customers to distinguish how they wish to route and receive their traffic. 

“It allows customers to define how they want their traffic to route or be exchanged over our network, based upon parameters like what country or region they are in,” he says. 

It also takes into account the peering relationships each customer might share with other providers. “It’s the whole idea of a network of networks,” he says. “Our customers are putting this programmatic language into their router profile and it is that which is allowing them to define their traffic route. It is essentially software defined networking.”

It is also Wheeler’s belief that SDN goes hand in hand with NFV. “Some people would vehemently disagree with this, but I would put [SDN and NFV] in one broader category,” he says. “It comes down to which type of programmatic interface you want to drive towards and I think that’s where you get more of a virtualised function capability versus a software capability.”


Telefonica: leading the way in Europe

Spanish operator Telefonica appears set to take a leadership position in SDN in Europe, and is heavily involved in the standardisation of the technology in the region. Telefonica launched its OpenMANO (management and orchestration) project in April, a practical implementation of the reference architecture for MANO under standardisation of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ESTI) and NFV Industry Specification Groups (ISG) model. 

Cristian Lopez, head of SDN and NFV marketing at Telefonica Global Solutions, says that a number of wholesale operators have already downloaded the service and are testing it in their labs. The company is also working on its NFV Reference Labs. These are designed to reduce integration efforts and avoid vendor lock-in, and have been tested for 45 NFV functions. “This is helping on the wholesale arena to ensure that functions created by third parties support the carrier throughout performance,” Lopez says.

In September 2015, Telefonica revealed a partnership with Juniper Networks for its SDN-enabled routers in the implementation of a next-generation metro network in Spain. Juniper’s expertise in SDN and NFV is expected to enable the operator to roll-out a network with more streamlined overall operation and maintenance, and the launch ties in with Telefonica’s goal of modernising its entire network. 

Lopez adds that there are a number of global initiatives now in the proof of concept phase, set to be analysed for commercial roll-out. “The objective is to change customer experience providing them with a web portal/API to get new services and make change requests in real time. Most relevant projects today are in residential and corporate/MNC where some proof of concepts have been completed and we are currently analysing if moving to a commercial roll out status,” he adds. 

Lopez says that during 2015, Telefonica saw several improvements with the latest versions of OpenDaylight, OpenStack and ONOS, which is opening up interesting new use cases. He hopes to build on this progress in the short-term. “SDN starts to be mature in data centres, still requires some months on networks and it will take some years for mobile,” he states. “We expect that technology will take off during 2016 for specific use cases.” 


Verizon: true virtualisation

Verizon is hoping it has discovered the perfect blend of in-house and vendor technology for its SDN offering. 

Verizon made perhaps one of the boldest SDN claims yet in April 2015 when it announced plans to implement SDN infrastructure across its entire network. A carrier with a long list of firsts, Verizon is seemingly looking to maintain its trend. The company has been working on the foundations of SDN for several years having created live lab environments for the technology in San Jose (CA), Tampa (FL) and Waltham (MA), and also has commercial data centre environments on the east and west coasts of the US.

“We’ve had several virtualised offers in the marketplace for years,” explains Victoria Lonker, director of enterprise networking products, Verizon Enterprise Solutions. 

“Our Dynamic Network Manager for example – which gives customers the ability to adjust the bandwidth on their ports as well as their capacity needs – has been in the market for about six years and it is one reason that we have maintained our stance as a leader in this area.”

Verizon has partnered with a number of technology vendors for its SDN development, namely Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, Ericsson, Juniper Networks and Nokia Networks, and has now co-authored a comprehensive SDN network architecture document. The document details all interface specifications and reference architectures as well as requirements for both the control layer and the forwarding box functions. 

Verizon hopes SDN and NFV to bring forward the possibility of automation and make its entire network structure more efficient, and the new architecture is expected to introduce some of these operational efficiencies and allow for the enablement of fast and flexible service delivery. Lonker says that the big news for Verizon this year was the launch of its SDN WAN solution in September, in partnership with Cisco. The solution provides network control that is directly programmable, to enable infrastructure to be abstracted from the application and network services layer. 

“This is a brave choice for us. A lot of people did not expect a company like Verizon to lead with a WAN solution as our first, truly SDN-based offering,” Lonker says. “There is a lot of debate in the industry that it will cannibalise traditional transport, but we are finding that the contrary is actually true. We chose to go to market with SDN WAN because it is the one application right now that customers are ready to embrace.”

Verizon’s entire roadmap for SDN rotates around the idea of a customer-first strategy, and the company is implementing SDN into its own infrastructure in order to experience and understand the technology, and consequently support its customers better. 

“We have the same business problems that our customers do,” says Lonker. 

In 2016, Verizon will concentrate its efforts on the delivery of managed solutions for enterprise customers, enabling them to remain focussed on their core business needs, as well as some unmanaged options. We can also expect a focus on the integrated user experience.

“We think it is a really exciting time in the industry and in 2016 we expect to see those true virtualised solutions come to life,” Lonker says. “2017 will be about that continued integration and evolution into larger scale deployments.”


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