By Tammy Parker
The concept of software-defined networks (SDN) was all the rage at Mobile World Congress earlier this year in Barcelona, Spain, but efforts to virtualize the mobile network remain in a very nascent stage. Nonetheless, progress is coming fast and furious as customers increasingly push operators to find methods to open bandwidth or deploy applications on the fly.
There are a multitude of definitions for SDN, which is not surprising given that the technology is in its infancy. The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) offers a description to which many defer.
According to the ONF, in an SDN the control plane and the data plane (also called the packet forwarding plane) are decoupled; the network intelligence and network state are logically centralized, and the underlying network infrastructure is abstracted from the applications. "This migration of control, formerly tightly bound in individual network devices, into accessible computing devices enables the underlying infrastructure to be abstracted for applications and network services, which can treat the network as a logical or virtual entity," according to the group.
Source: Open Networking Foundation
At the most basic level, the goal of SDN as it applies to telecom networks is to minimize the number of specialized pieces of hardware operators must source and maintain, said Patrick Ostiguy, president and CEO of Accedian, a provider of performance assurance networking technologies. "That's the thing that's going to take the longest to do because they're going to need generic equipment that's high performance enough to do all sorts of things in the network," he added.
SDN comes into vogue
Until recently, SDN was not seriously eyed for use in massive telecom networks, but service providers are giving SDN a second look, particularly as a network-edge solution that can help them dynamically deploy new services, network resources and capacity as needed.
"SDN today has only or mainly been talked about in reference to data centers," said Johan Wibergh, Ericsson's (NASDAQ:ERIC) head of networks. Now, however, the vision for SDN has grown much, much larger. "It's the whole Internet that needs to be done with SDN. That's where you get the big benefit. It's more like end-to-end SDN," he said.
Ericsson, as other large infrastructure vendors, hopes to make a market in enabling SDN for modern telecom networks. "SDN is actually nothing new for us. We actually used SDN for voice calls on mobile networks from 10 years ago," said Wibergh. "We can reuse a lot of knowledge and system architecture when we bring it into the IP world."
Similarly, Huawei wants to "virtualize every piece of the network," said Huawei spokesman Scott Sykes.
But, he acknowledges the embryonic state of the technology. "For us, in terms of product roadmap, it's really going to take the next five years to really get things moving in that direction," said Sykes.
A new type of architecture
Supporters of virtualization contend operators must embrace an emerging type of network architecture that is open rather than closed and includes outside elements and resources that may not be under direct carrier control.
"Even operators, our customers, are just getting their heads around it. But fundamentally, everyone agrees, this just makes sense. The equipment that exists today and the way that it's being built can't account for all of the demand that is going to happen in the future. It just can't do it," Sykes said.
During this year's MWC, Huawei's booth featured a demonstration showing how a large enterprise customer might use SDN to add bandwidth on the fly for communications between two remote offices, using existing equipment that is already deployed in the field.
"We're looking at several different areas to see how we can solve mundane, everyday events to help operators deal with them," said Dee Alipanah, vice president of business development for Huawei's global technical service department.
By providing cloud-based networking options, customers can add the capabilities they need on a temporary, short-term basis. "They can select it, run it, test it, modify it, without making huge investments in tools and resources, using a platform in the cloud that they can access and use only when they need to," Alipanah said.
"It's in our interest, and that of our customers, to go in this direction," said Sykes.
Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE:ALU) recently jumped on the SDN bandwagon by backing internal startup venture Nuage Networks, which is pushing its Virtualized Services Platform (VSP).
Nuage's technology provides a competitive alternative to other data center virtualization platforms from companies such as VMware, Cisco Systems and Contrail Systems, a startup acquired by Juniper Network for $176 million in December 2012. Nuage claims it is focused on SDN for the data center "and beyond."
"At the end of the day, what is really important is the way network resources are abstracted to allow the rapid deployment of network resources or allow even control of the network resources in a very dynamic manner," said Sunil Khandekar, Nuage founder and CEO.
SDN is about "bridging the gap between applications and the network to allow for rapid consumption of network services by providing visibility and control to the applications. It's about separating what applications need from how the network implements it," he said.