SDN and NFV in 2016

10 March 2016 |


A changing market for network services is bringing about a dramatic shift in carrier buying trends. As technologies like SDN and NFV impact the industry, they may also be altering the relationship between carriers and vendors.

Carriers are struggling to reinvent their networks along more automated and software-driven lines, often at great expense and accompanied by much turmoil and soul searching. But they know that with customer demands evolving fast and so many agile competitors entering the communications services market, there is no real alternative to moving in this direction however painful it may be in the short term.

Unsurprisingly, this shifting landscape is reinventing not only the way carriers address the needs of their customers but also the dynamics of their relationship with the suppliers of the solutions their services are based on. Paying for container loads of proprietary hardware and employing an army of engineers to run it was yesterday’s model. Connecting the dots virtually and without regard for physical location is the future.

“SDN and NFV are undoubtedly changing carrier buyer habits,” says Shawn Morris, senior manager of IP development for the NTT Communications global IP network at NTT America. “No one wants to buy more sheet metal than they have to.”

He explains that NTT’s own pioneering transformation in the direction of software enablement has been going on in one way or another for over a decade: “These days, we simply don’t buy what we can’t integrate with our controller,” he says. “It is mainly about SDN, but to an extent about NFV too. Something similar is going on with many carriers.” It is not only carriers frantically reinventing their businesses for a new era. Vendors too are engaged on a major recalibration to ensure they stay as relevant as possible, believes Morris: “It is not just bullet points on a road map any more,” he says. “It’s happening. Some vendors are talking the talk, others are walking the walk to a greater extent than others. All of them are jumping in with at least one and a half feet, if not both.”

Change, believes Morris, is evident across the span of vendor brands, big to small, mainstream to peripheral. He points to Intel as a name with a vested interest in making commoditised hardware viable as a high end networking platform: “You’ve also things going on like Cisco acquiring Tail-f as the basis of a hub for automation,” he adds. “Plus all new products now coming on the market are pretty much based around open technologies, much of it coalescing around NETCONF and YANG. There will soon be no more proprietary solutions, which is great news.”

Disruption in the ranks 

This disruption in the ranks of traditional equipment vendors is creating openings for many new types of solution supplier, argues Justin Paul, head of OSS marketing at vendor Amdocs. He believes that the thinking of the old guard of traditional suppliers is still to some degree connected to shifting boxes: “But it’s really all about the software that sits on those boxes, and that’s allowing a lot of other players to come into the market,” he adds. “You’ve got OSS and BSS vendors like us, as well as what would once have been considered pure IT vendors, all seeing an opportunity that just wasn’t there 24 months ago.”

He says Amdocs is addressing the billing and back office needs of many Tier 1 players: “These are the kind of carriers who tend to be in the vanguard of any change, and they are advancing with software-driven implementations,” he says. 

With carriers as with vendors, there are leaders and followers: “You’ve got AT&T, NTT and SK Telecom so far ahead of the pack, and a long tail of people catching up,” says Paul. “There’s currently a call for standardisation, and many will be waiting for that before they jump on board. Meanwhile the task of players like Amdocs is to break certain assumptions and work on the orchestration of all these virtual elements.”

Changes to the way BSS solutions are implemented have wider implications, believes Rob Morrison, director of product management at revenue management vendor CSG International: “One trend we are seeing now is network operations outsourcing as a transformation strategy, and this is having have a knock-on effect from network operations to the BSS, which is subject to the same demands that are driving the uptake of NFV and SDN – to deliver greater agility to the business at a lower cost,” he says. “So while NFV and SDN may not be transforming carrier buying habits around BSS directly, the same business imperatives are forcing a change of thinking here too – particularly among operators that are thinking not just about SDN and NFV, but about the entire ecosystem of ‘people, processes and technology’.”

Virtual reality 

Virtualisation is shifting not just product roadmaps but the entire economic basis of networking in a way that is inevitably seeping into the dialogue between vendor and carriers, argues David Noguer Bau, senior manager, global strategic marketing with Juniper Networks: “It is true that the main benefits of NFV and SDN are flexibility and agility but virtualisation also brings new economics,” he believes. “For instance, service providers can deal with increasing customer demands and manage overhead costs more efficiently, and provide high levels of provision.”

It follows, he says, that they are seeking out vendors who can assist them with software they can deploy to increase agility, speed up time to market and achieve the kind of virtualisation that scales services up and down quickly. 

A way for vendors to help service providers to stay in touch with change is to focus their development work around the key area of creating a better digital customer experience, believes Nicolas Fischbach, director strategy, architecture and innovation with Colt Technology Services: “Ensuring the end-to-end customer journey is actually an opportunity to do it right – creating independent domains with centralised service choreography and abstraction layers, especially around the legacy systems stack,” he advises. 

There are voices that argue that for moderation in place of unseemly haste if this future is to be reached bloodlessly. Robin Kent, director of European operations at vendor Adax, believes that in the headlong rush to virtualise, assumptions are often made than software is where all emphasis should go at the expense of hardware elements: “To prove successful, NFV can only occur when there is architecture in place for both hardware and software,” he warns. “Getting away from proprietary hardware is good, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Kent says that as with all new technology generations, common sense can get left behind: “NFV will mean different things for each type of operator,” he suggests. 

“Maybe operators should simply move the control plane to a virtual machine, offering a simplified solution for network management whilst adding to the quality and value of the overall solution with hardware acceleration for the data plane.”

In a world where a carrier is as likely today to be courted by an Accenture, a Microsoft or an Oracle as by a more traditional partner like Alcatel-Lucent, Ciena or Ericcson, some might question what value these IT providers really add. Does their position of credibility in data centres qualify them to do the same job for the network? Joe Marsella, CTO EMEA with manufacturer Ciena, agrees that enhancements like SDN and NFV are loosening vendor lock-in and broadening the range of carrier partners, but if confident that there is a role for all types of solution provider: “As traditional IT vendors look to make acquisitions and devote significant spend on new product development and innovation, network virtualisation is enabling the dynamic service delivery that providers need to better serve enterprises,” he says. “By helping service providers get closer to the enterprise customer, network vendors have an opportunity to not only increase their relevance, they are also making service providers more responsive to market opportunities.”

Chris Halbard, executive vice president and president international at cloud storage solution vendor Synchronoss Technologies, believes that IT vendors are in many ways a natural fit for a virtualised communications world, rather than an awkward and opportunistic graft: “NFV is a network architecture concept that uses the techniques of IT virtualisation, but in a way that differs from how virtualisation is used in enterprise IT,” he says. “For their operator customers to properly realise the benefits of NFV, vendors need to enhance existing IT virtualisation products and architectures by adding key carrier-grade attributes, such as scalability and better performance monitoring. This requirement means that traditional telecom vendors and IT vendors both have a part to play in devising SDN and NFV-ready infrastructure for telecoms operators – although each will approach the challenge from opposite ends.”

SDN and NFV will also never, he says, be implemented in a completely new, built-from-scratch greenfield network: “Instead, they’ll have to integrate with existing systems and infrastructure,” he expects. “Therefore, the other major challenge is not simply to get SDN and NFV to work - but to get them to work in a multi-technology, multi-vendor network environment. To do so requires the interoperability and orchestration skills and software that are traditionally the strong suit of those IT vendors.”

As the move to virtualisation develops and matures, the importance of IT experts is likely to deepen, claims Paul Conway, director of service provider PMC Telecom: “As the telecoms industry moves towards hosted and IP solutions traditional methods will gradually decrease in popularity, which in turn is a great advantage to IT vendors as they have stronger knowledge and experience in this sector,” he believes.

Ravi Palepu, senior director, global telco solutions with consulting and outsourcing provider Virtusa, agrees that the future looks promising for IT suppliers, with so much carrier emphasis on WAN to data centre connectivity: “This is good news for the likes of Wipro and Accenture as it is a landscape they really understand,” he says. “They know what needs to be done, and it’s good revenue for them. If a data centre goes down and you’ve got to switch, you need intelligent load balancing which is all software driven now. Operators are all implementing solutions for that. IT providers are taking advantage as they know the gaps that operators face. The bigger more hardware-focused vendors have a role too, as they have the sheer manpower to make a difference.”

As carriers push to automate more and more network functions, they will plainly be relying as much as ever on support from third parties. It is not the end of relations between traditional vendors and carriers, but it is likely to be a more complex and fluid market where those veteran vendors will need to work hard to stay in the picture.