Hello SDN/NFV, goodbye rats' nests

It's been almost 18 months since I had the opportunity to interview Alcatel-Lucent CTO Marcus Weldon about the challenges and opportunities for future telco networks, as well as his views on software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV), broadly speaking. Something he said stuck in my mind. 

While small cells remain physically outside the cloud, the cloud and the network clearly are merging, he said. Some network functionality will run in the cloud with NFV and some will run on hardware. Where things get interesting are inside data centers. "The network and the data center are merging, meaning points of presence are going to have network equipment and IT equipment" deployed next to each other, he said.   

From then on, in conversations with industry experts, I would occasionally quiz them about these concepts. I heard mixed responses, but more often than not, they agreed with the general assessment--although where or how the resemblances between networks and data centers transpire is open to interpretation.

My read goes something like this: SDN got its start in the big data centers operated by Internet companies. There, engineers often succumb to the "fail fast" mentality, which became even more crystal clear to me when Astro Teller, Google's Captain of Moonshots, (yes, that is his title) explained during the recent I/O conference how the idea is to fail as fast as you can.

By that, one could take it to mean: Don't waste any more time than necessary on ideas or concepts that in the long run aren't going to get you anywhere. Try, test, fail and move on. Granted, that's the Google X division talking, not Google proper, but contrast that with the telco's world of 99.999 percent uptime or general desire not to fail, and you can see what's going on here. Two worlds with traditionally different views are not always going to see eye to eye, much less avoid an all-out collision course.

Fast forward to today, and signs are emerging that the telco and IT industries are making progress. AT&T, especially, is undertaking a massive employee retraining program as it moves to a software-centric model. By 2020, AT&T has said 75 percent of its network will be controlled by software. To make this happen, the company reorganized about 130,000 employees to "tear down the walls between IT and network operations" to move faster to release software, as The Wall Street Journal reported last week.

The company is shifting to a software development method--DevOps--that emphasizes collaboration between developers and other IT professionals. DevOps was pioneered by companies like Netflix, the WSJ notes, adding that it's part of a big pivot for AT&T that will require employees to learn new skills such as SDN architecture and protocols, in addition to applying "cybersecurity in a highly virtualized environment."

Even in telecom, not everyone agrees that carrier-grade five 9s reliability is necessary everywhere in the world. Some argue it's only necessary to implement such reliability in certain areas--adhering to it everywhere just amounts to overkill.

Last week at the TM Forum Live! 2015 event in Nice, France, Ericsson CTO Ulf Ewaldsson suggested that building individual network elements to certain standards and having them certified as 99.999 percent telco-grade reliable isn't enough, LightReading reported. Instead, he's arguing that that level of reliability needs to exist across the entire network and it's up to the industry to deliver those capabilities and that mentality.

Efforts are underway to make more sense out of all of this. This week, the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) announced the upcoming release of Atrium. It's an open SDN software distribution designed to build on software from many developers that has been community developed to help network operators more easily build custom solutions and allow vendors to take advantage of common building blocks, according to Dan Pitt, executive director of the ONF.

But entering this big new world of "open source" is a bit daunting. What's the role of intellectual property rights (IPR), which is at the very heart of a lot of vendors' strategies? What's the role of all the "open" initiatives?

Vendors might say something is "open," but once you look under the hood, it's not really the case. "It's good that they're opening up, rather than being completely closed, but a lot of them are opening with their own defined interfaces, which they publish but they also control them," Pitt told FierceWirelessTech. In some cases, they're saying they're open, and it helps get customers started, "but we're asking customers to look under the hood" and consider whether it's good for a short-term or a long-term investment.

With all these fancy new capabilities, who's going to support them? Most operators still need and want support, and whether it's "one throat to choke" or something else, they're going to need support. Some operators employ talented staff that will do their own integration and support; others do not, and they have to rely more on third parties or the vendors themselves.

Pitt mentioned that he saw some before and after pictures of a municipal enterprise in Japan--a country that embraced SDN long before others--with the before shot of a spaghetti-like, rat's nest of wires on the top and bottom floors before undergoing its SDN transformation. Afterward, that clutter was gone, and it took only two people to run the network. That might be enough motivation for a lot of enterprises to go software-centric.

It will be interesting to see what develops at the Open Networking Summit in Santa Clara, Calif., next week. Based on video from an event last year, it should be more than a little enlightening.--Monica