SDN bringing virtualization to a network near you

editor's corner

Software-defined networking made a splash at the 2013 Mobile World Congress, with numerous infrastructure vendors announcing SDN product roadmaps as mobile operators try to conceive of the day their networks' functions are utterly virtualized.

The pitch for SDN is that decoupling network functions from purpose-built hardware--by virtualizing the infrastructure--can enable networks to better handle unprecedented and temporary events, improve time to market for new services and result in cost savings for operators as they deal with the mobile broadband data tsunami. This goes way beyond merely storing information in the cloud, which was a notable topic at last year's MWC.

A number of vendors announced SDN efforts before and during this year's MWC. For example, Tekelec, Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) and Huawei were busy pushing SDN at the show, while F5 Networks announced that it has optimized the latest software release of its Traffix Signaling Delivery Controller for SDN and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) architectures.

A major issue for the SDN vision is that the concepts and functionalities are not yet standardized. Vendors can only go so far in their plans because they ultimately need a standardized path to follow.

F5 noted that a new standards group for virtualization of network functions has been introduced as part of ETSI, the European Telecommunication Standards Institute.

In addition, the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) is hoping to push the process along. The group's first goal is to create the switching ecosystem to support the OpenFlow interface, an open standard that enables researchers to run experimental protocols in campus networks. OpenFlow, the group says, enables networks to evolve by giving a remote controller the power to modify the behavior of network devices, through a well-defined "forwarding instruction set."

Wireless backhaul specialist Ceragon Networks announced this week that it has joined ONF. "Becoming part of ONF enables Ceragon to continue to have an active role in the ongoing development of new industry standards," said Ira Palti, Ceragon Network's president and CEO. "As SDN is embraced by more and more leading operators and system vendors around the world, it is fundamentally shifting the industry's approach to networking technology."

But is SDN really being embraced by operators or is this more of a vendor push? A top executive for one Tier 1 operator indicated to me that he is more concerned with LTE deployments and spectrum issues right now rather than some lofty future vision for SDN.

Yet Huawei spokesman Scott Sykes explained that although operators are just now getting their heads around the SDN concept, they can already see that it makes sense. The strength of SDN, he said will be in enabling flexible network design.

Similarly, Ericsson Chief Strategy Officer Doug Gilstrap told me operators are looking to vendors for help in enabling their networks to distribute content, applications and bandwidth, sometimes on the fly in unpredictable situations. "They want thought leadership, and we're providing thought leadership in terms of how it's going to deploy. We're working with various operators. Now it's a question of timing," he said.

It's clear that network equipment being built and deployed today is only a stopgap measure, as it simply won't meet demand for mobile broadband services in the not too distant future. Vendors' recent efforts to roll out SDN product roadmaps may seem a bit premature, but the future will be here before we know it. The time to start planning is now.--Tammy

P.S. Do you think the industry is ready for SDN? Vote in the poll on our home page.