Why AT&T, Verizon, Ericsson and the rest of the industry is embracing SDN and NFV

by Monica Alleven

While ambitious players in the wireless industry are contemplating future technologies like 5G, operators and vendors also are in the midst of a major evolution right now in how wired and wireless telecom networks are architected. This new paradigm is being driven by software and more specifically, software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV).

AT&T (NYSE: T) has been the most vocal about its SDN and NFV initiatives, publicly sharing its goal to virtualize and control more than 75 percent of its network using a software-driven architecture by 2020. But Verizon (NYSE: VZ), while taking a more tentative approach, is on board too, as well as other operators around the world. SNS Research expects NFV and SDN investments to reach nearly $21 billion by 2020.

Broadly speaking, NFV allows carriers to virtualize hardware functions and turn them into software within their networks. SDN enables carriers to use software to control network functions and policies in the cloud. Both are expected to reduce operators' reliance on expensive proprietary hardware platforms, helping to slash operational expenses tied to a reduction in physical space, labor and power consumption. The technologies also promise to make it easier for operators to launch new services quickly.

Worldwide, operators are moving toward NFV remarkably fast for an industry that traditionally took its own sweet time. So far, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) NFV industry working group (ISG) has delivered three white papers and numerous use cases since the operator-driven concept was introduced in the fall of 2012. To ensure that momentum continues, the NFV ISG was asked to work beyond its original two-year limit, with a specific focus on addressing the barriers to interoperability. That second two-year phase kicks in this month, and one of its Phase 2 objectives is clarifying how NFV intersects with SDN and related standards and open source initiatives.

Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) is among the many companies contributing to the emerging open source standards efforts through movements like OpenStack, the open source cloud computing platform, and Open Daylight Project, a collaborative Linux Foundation open source project for accelerating the adoption of SDN and NFV.

Adan Pope, vice president of technology and CTO for Ericsson Business Unit Support Solutions, has been involved in the telecom industry going back some 30 years, starting as a member of the technical staff at Bell Labs. Naturally, he's seen some things that have dramatically changed the way the world works--as well as some things that fell short of the hype. "I think that NFV and SDN have gone from the hype curve to things are really happening, which is exciting to see," he said. "This one's for real. We're taking it very seriously."

Pope acknowledged there's some degree of competition and collaboration between various groups. The telecom world needs to meet certain reliability and availability requirements, either by law or customer expectations, and those same requirements are not always shared in the information technology (IT) world, where some aspects of SDN and NFV first originated.

In telco, "we are proud of the fact that we are five 9s reliable, or better," he said. "That's part of our whole culture. We love that stuff, and our customers have come to expect a level of reliability, which is really unprecedented in IT. And when you compare that with sort of the IT infrastructure of today, they have a very different model… It's competition of thought, competition of approach more than anything else. The IT world accepts there is entropy in the world and that bad things happen. In fact, it's unavoidable. So what you want to do is not prevent bad things from happening, but you actually want to introduce a level of error and you want to take an approach of when bad things happen, identify, kill that error and start over."

In summary: "There's the IT guys' view of the world: Error happens. And the telco side of the world, where 'we must prevent error.' And I think that's what you see playing out in this competition of ideas and collaboration," Pope said.

SDN and NFV as close collaborators

Dan Pitt, ONF

Pitt (Source: ONF)

To be sure, SDN and NFV from the very start have been closely entwined, with many of the same members--operators and vendors--participating in both arenas. Last year the SDN-focused Open Networking Foundation (ONF) and NFV-oriented ETSI struck a more formal strategic partnership whereby they pledged to explore how SDN can enable forwarding-plane support for some of the most important NFV use cases. The ONF manages the OpenFlow communications protocol, which is considered an enabler of SDN, giving access to the forwarding plane of a network switch or router.

"We have always felt that the sole benefit of NFV can be reached only when you have SDN underneath it," said Dan Pitt, executive director of the ONF.

One of the themes ONF has been articulating the past nine months or so is that "NFV is a good short- and medium-term strategy, but the long-term strategy is really the complete transformation of carrier software away from monolithic OSS and BSS and appliance-based modules into a truly modular software-controlled" type of management, he said. One made-up word he uses to describe it in shorthand is the "software-ification" of the carrier.

Cyril Doussau, the head of InfoVista's service assurance product line, said that in wireless, the move to SDN means traffic patterns will change more often and RF network engineers cannot continue to plan their RF network based on old data sets. "They will need to adopt live planning technologies allowing them to continuously fine-tune network configuration in order to ensure subscribers' quality of experience," he said.

Anshu Agarwhal, ConteXtream

Agarwhal (Source: ConteXtream)

ConteXtream is a privately held SDN company that landed its first Tier 1 U.S. operator deal in 2010, well before SDN and NFV became industry buzzwords. Since then, the company has been working on use cases and boasts a subscriber-aware SDN fabric, "so we can go to the granularity of every subscriber," said Anshu Agarwal, vice president of marketing at ConteXtream.

"The SDN and NFV, in my opinion, they are not colliding," Agarwal said. "SDN has to learn the ways of going to a carrier-centric world" and find out how SDN can cooperate with NFV to make NFV real.

While some argue that it shouldn't matter whether the changes are being implemented in the wired or the wireless networks first because they're melding into one, others say they see a distinct driver in one versus the other. ConteXtream's focus has been more on wireless, Agarwal acknowledged, so that's where she's seeing demand. Mobile data traffic grew so fast on wireless that operators had to act fast, she said, suggesting cable operators may be seeing similar rapid uptake in Wi-Fi.

Ken Dilbeck, vice president of strategic programs at TM Forum, said initially there seemed to be more interest in SDN/NFV from the wireline side. However, the allure of significant cost savings through SDN and NFV has recently pushed wireless operators toward the technologies.

Kasper Reinink, principal architect in the Wireless CTO Architecture Strategy team at Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), said the whole NFV paradigm offers new possibilities for evolving telecom systems. With a more software-based model, "you get a lot more flexibility in terms of new capabilities and functions that you can put together, [and] it becomes easier to deploy those functions," he said. From an architectural perspective, "I think this is a very exciting area because it lays the groundwork for being able to do a lot of innovation."

If not now, why not?

Both SDN and NFV sound like promising technologies for operators, saving them money in the long run and enabling the rollout of faster services as carriers increasingly compete with over the top (OTT) players. Infonetics Research expects global carrier SDN and NFV hardware and software to grow from less than $500 million in 2013 to more than $11 billion in 2018. NFV represents the lion's share of the combined SDN and NFV market, from 2014 to 2018, according to Infonetics.

Counterintuitive as it may sound, not everyone is moving as fast as AT&T when it comes to adopting new network technologies. Agarwal said she thinks some operators are waiting to see how others land on the continuum before they move forward. It's not that they don't want to do it, "but everyone is just being cautious on where they should be on that continuum," she said.

Doussau said what's holding some operators back is the need to reorganize in order to introduce IT and cloud knowledge into their networks (or network organizations.) Doussau also said there's a fear that the technology isn't yet mature.

The majority of operators TM Forum talks with are not simply looking to "replace" physical equipment with virtual equipment. They're looking to build the virtual ecosystem, Dilbeck said. The speed at which they do that will be driven not by which technology they are replacing, but by the vision of operators' leadership.

Indeed, industry leaders say it's critical to get the top executives behind their efforts, like AT&T's John Donovan, senior executive vice president, technology and network operations. Donovan has already engaged in some colorful public discussions that challenge old ways of thinking.

Beyond top executives, another part of the difficultly in migrating to NFV and SDN also lies with middle managers and engineers. "It is not a technology issue but more about people," Dilbeck said. Managing a "virtual infrastructure" that combines all of the compute, storage and switching capabilities of an operator into a single pool of resources is a massive cultural change, and creates the opportunity for organizational wars inside a company, particularly between IT and operations, he said.

Andrew White, ATIS

White (Source: ATIS)

Indeed, part of the challenge is just getting technologists to speak each other's language, said Andrew White, vice president of technology at ATIS. Sometimes terms in one industry mean something else in another.

"If you look at NFV, if you look at cloud, if you look at SDN, these are all software-abstracted environments," he said. "There are definitely aspects of SDN that are more service provider-centric, but there are also aspects of SDN that are more enterprise-centric. Depending on where you came from, even the term SDN really means something different for certain people. It's meant largely as an in-data center mechanism to control connections, servers" and other elements in the data center. However, "I think what we're seeing is really a broadening of that definition, where both with NFV and with SDN and with virtualization in general, the desire is to be able to virtualize functions, chain those functions, which involves SDN natively, and then really construct services using those as building blocks."

Unifying the work, and moving forward

With so many "open" initiatives going on in the NFV and SDN space, the companies behind the Open Platform for NFV Project (OPNFV) apparently saw the need to bring a lot of them together under one roof. Part of the impetus behind the OPNFV is to collect code from various other projects into one place for creating NFV infrastructure, according to its newly named director of NFV, Heather Kirksey. A Linux Foundation Collaborative Project, OPNFV is a relatively young group, having launched in September of last year. Members include AT&T, HP, Cisco, Vodafone--a who's who list of telecom and IT industry players.

OPNFV also is looking at some of these projects and identifying what needs to be enhanced, such as making IPv6 networking capabilities more robust. "It's both an integration aspect and recognition that there are perhaps telco-grade capabilities that weren't necessarily the highest priority for some of the more IT-oriented thought processes, so it's working together to be able to contribute effectively," Kirksey said.

Considering the size of the transition and all the legacy gear that's still out there, it's still early days for SDN and NFV. "We're at the infancy," Ericsson's Pope said. "We all believe, including myself, that this is a step worth taking and that it has an economic benefit and carriers will definitely go down the SDN/NFV road as much as they can. But at the same time, they still operate a lot of hardware routers, a tremendous amount of transport infrastructure... wireless infrastructure--anything that's been developed the last 30 years and beyond," and they still need to manage all of that.

ONF's Pitt is optimistic the industry will work it out. "I think the next five to 10 years are going to be very dynamic for the telecom industry, including the operators and the suppliers of technology, and I think that's good," he said. "We're seeing a lot of investment now in new technologies and startup companies, and most will fail. But there will be some huge successes, and by and large, we're planting a large number of seeds, and flowers will sprout, and some will bloom, and some will grow into big trees."

Why AT&T, Verizon, Ericsson and the rest of the industry is embracing SDN and NFV
Read more on