A wholesale change
Software-defined networking remains a principal topic of telecoms conversation. But what has been its impact so far on the business of wholesale telecoms? Guy Matthews reports
The wholesale telecoms sector is not immune from the change sweeping the market for ICT services. Carrier networks cannot afford to be bottlenecks of legacy practices while, all around them, from start-up tech unicorns to content providers, scale up to exploit new services in areas like the cloud, IoT and big data.
The power of software is integral to all this change, and carriers must embrace software-defined networking (SDN) to stay relevant.
There are signs that SDN is starting to transform the wholesale ecosystem, and they are long overdue, argues Carl Roberts, chief commercial officer of carrier Epsilon. “I see SDN as the gateway to the future and really freeing networking from a legacy mindset,” he says. “It is creating new opportunities in our business and removing the limits on what a networking business can be.”
Others see a sector in the early and tentative stages of this process. “Are we seeing a significant change? In pockets, yes,” says Ravi Palepu, global head of telco services at consulting firm Virtusa. “Most wholesalers have been on an SDN journey for at least a year or two now. But use cases are not across the board.”
There are “some areas of the carrier business where we’re seeing more activity than others, such as the data centre or in on-demand networks”, he says. “Enterprises now want their network services on demand. But they are not always getting that with other types of service, for example security.”
The challenge, says Palepu, is that too many wholesalers are still carrying so much legacy baggage. “You can’t just switch to a virtual stack just like that. It’s very difficult, and has to be gradual,” he explains. “Customers don’t always have the appetite to wait years though.”
While change is slow for some, there are others in the carrier market who are already offering the ability to fully orchestrate SDN according to the needs of service provider customers. To do so they are taking the painful step of moving on from older transmission technologies like TDM and ADSL.
“SDN offers a way for carriers to tap into the gains of new transmission technologies through virtualisation, putting the software on top of their own core distribution and access capabilities,” claims Steve Williams, product manager at Vodafone UK. “This shift will offer new possibilities for service providers and a new market for carriers.”
It’s too early, says Williams, to say precisely how SDN will impact the relationship between carriers and their customers. “However, we can expect SDN to give service providers far greater control of their carrier network, with API-driven interactions enabling them to rapidly or automatically increase bandwidth to support the services they’re providing to end-users,” he says.
“This should create a smoother relationship between carriers and their customers, as it becomes easier to procure and adjust their services.”
SDN gives carriers flexibility and agility, says David Noguer Bau, Juniper Networks’ service provider director. “It’s helping them make sure traffic is going where they want it to go, optimising paths, reducing manual operations. Unless there was a strong business-related driver for this, no one would make the move.”
But Noguer Bau warns that it is still early days, with a very limited number of things that SDN can do for carriers. “SDN for routing is straightforward,” he says. “But if you limit it to that layer, then there is only so much you can do. You can change routes, but you cannot change capacity to a great extent.”
At Wave2Wave, Duncan Ellis, director for EMEA, agrees that, as things stand, SDN solves only part of the problem, being unsuited to addressing issues in the physical layer.
“This is where, in the vast majority of cases, network management remains a manual, rather than software-driven, process,” says Ellis. “Consequently, none of the benefits of SDN apply. Here, to add or remove a new network connection, an engineer is required to manipulate fibres by hand. This process is slow, expensive and highly susceptible to human error.”
An emerging alternative, says Ellis, comes from robotic optical management engines which can be programmed to physically change the connectivity of the network.
“In essence, robots – and the physical network automation they deliver – are the final piece in the jigsaw for SDN,” he claims. “With them, it’s possible to configure and manage the optimal network across the entire stack, all from one SDN controller.”
On the plus side, Mike O’Malley, vice president of carrier strategy and business development for cybersecurity vendor Radware, argues that SDN is giving the wholesale industry much more agility to respond to the market quickly with custom solutions to better meet customer needs and better compete against web scale companies.
“It also opens the possibility to leverage the great amount of inherent data in the network for big data analytics to gather insights and programmatically improve the function of the network via SDN,” he says. “Security is a great example of this, where carriers are harnessing security information throughout their networks.”
At Colt, Fahim Sabir says it is the area of on-demand networking where SDN’s true potential lies. “It’s this that opens the benefits of SDN to customers,” says Sabir, the company’s director of network-on-demand. “The cloud revolution is starting to drive end customers in the direction of wanting a flexible, cloud-like, experience with their network.”
The real gains come, he says, when an on-demand service can span multiple carriers to increase its reach: “In order to achieve this, carriers must open their networks up to other carriers via APIs to offer these on-demand services.” Colt is the leader within MEF in the area of lifecycle services orchestration focused on the definition of these APIs, he claims, and the company has demonstrated them in action in proofs of concept with both AT&T and Verizon.
Powerful use-cases will emerge, he says, when there is ubiquity in on-demand networking at all layers and when this is combined with inter-carrier APIs.
There are many who see the interconnection of SDN platforms as the next big step in the evolution of networking, with the power of the API able to give a uniform experience to all customers in the chain.
“SDN is actually making networking a vibrant and exciting segment of the ICT ecosystem,” enthuses Roberts at Epsilon. “With our DevOps team, we’re able to push networking to new places with new programmability and automation that supports new business models and partnerships.”
He adds: “We’re working with service providers across the world to explore how we can use our API stack to expand their scope and grow their offerings. At the same time, we are growing our reach in new markets and supporting new users via our partners. That’s a massive change from talking about voice minutes 10 years ago.”
Under this model, he says, carriers will be free to explore, innovate and collaborate with their partners and go far beyond traditional wholesale. “I’m excited about SDN because it fundamentally changes what is possible in networking and makes connectivity exciting again,” says Roberts. “The legacy model that the industry has had for decades is over. We’re inventing the future of connectivity every day.” Carriers’ customers into new pricing during a surge in traffic from a DDoS attack.
“Akamai can help by mitigating threats at the access layer of the internet rather than at the core, potentially preventing large amounts of traffic aggregating in the core,” says Coley.
Ultimately, cutting off threats as quickly and cleanly as possible clearly offers a huge upside for carriers. “Defending earlier protects the network and performance,” says Verizon’s Field.
“Think forward to being able to use machine learning and AI to make these decisions, and we have some real potential to implement self-defence through automation on a carrier-grade scale.”
A wholesale revolution in the wide area
While SDN is being deployed by carriers to change core networks and support transformation within data centres, its close cousin SD-WAN is making similar waves in the wide area network, connecting an organisation’s geographically distributed locations in a new and software-enabled way.
SD-WAN and SDN have a common history, both centring on the separation of the control plane and the data plane and both supportive of the integration of virtual network functions (VNFs).
Brendan Gunn, director of global Ethernet and IP services at US carrier Verizon, says that SD-WAN is creating every bit as profound a change within carriers businesses as SDN.
"SD-WAN is revolutionising our industry, for example by making what we sell much more easily managed by customers," says Gunn. "Even though we at Verizon are still in the midst of the SD-WAN journey, it’s already clear that there has been a major change in how we relate to customers, and in the types of discussions we’re having with them. There’s a lot more emphasis in flexibility and dynamic services, and a lot more talk that goes beyond issues of price and access and up into the OSI stack, and that’s been exciting."
But Nick Johnson, CEO of Evolving Networks, a UK-based ISP, fears that too many carriers are stuck in the SD-WAN slow lane.
"While there is an acceptance within the wholesale carrier industry that SD-WAN is happening, it seems that most wholesale telecoms providers are waiting to see what type of traction is achieved before making significant investments in their infrastructure," he says.
"We would say that the wholesale market is being understandably slow to embrace SD-WAN as anything more than a buzzword. This represents a risk, as we have seen large carriers trying to sell traditional leased lines as ‘SD ready’ when they are anything but."