SDN/NFV: Not Just for the Big Players

Posted on: 26th June 2017

The virtualization plans of the largest operators and vendors understandably attract the most attention. But they’re not the only ones with ambitious plans – and impressive progress.

Last week’s SDN/NFV workshop hosted by INCA – the Independent Networks Co-operative Association – provided plenty of insights into the views and experiences of the UK’s alternative operators.

The “Arduous Job” of Automation

On board the HMS Belfast, sponsor Adtran likened SDN and NFV to the invention of the screw propeller: a technical breakthrough that opened up new unthought-of possibilities in transportation.

Adtran’s EMEA CTO Ronan Kelly cited the “arduous job” that operators still face to deliver large scale automation, with an 18-24 month window still typical for getting new network capabilities into the hands of customers.

Virtualization offers an escape from the long cycle of waterfall development of tightly coupled hardware and software. For Adtran, at this point the question of virtualization for operators was less “why” and more “why not?”

So far so good.

Vodafone provided a perspective from the other end of the scale via their Ocean program: SDN underpins the opening up of new markets. Continued growth of 4G, and into 5G; cloud services; IoT. But precisely because it is a transformational technology, it impacts many other parts of the business – from sales and marketing through finance as well as networks & operations. The challenge is getting all of the business to change as one to realize the full benefit.

Executive Sponsorship

From the overall discussion, smaller operators would seem to have a clear advantage: the ability to drive change throughout the business, with less legacy to contend with. Both from a network as well as an organizational and cultural viewpoint.

Perhaps no clearer demonstration of that than COLT. Under CEO Carl Grivner, since 2016 their mission to go software-defined has been given a top-down impetus. With the possible exception of AT&T, few telco CEOs are so clearly driving their company’s virtualization strategies.

Javier Lecanda, Product Owner for COLT On Demand, provided a quick history of COLT’s SDN journey. COLT has been involved from the start on virtualization efforts, and under their On Demand umbrella has been putting SDN into practice with paying customers for SD-WAN.

Perhaps most distinctively, COLT has implemented an architecture that presents an API that could be used by other partners to request services. The same API is used behind COLT’s On Demand portal, giving end-user organisations flexibility to change their service needs, without a cumbersome order/quote/delivery cycle. COLT sees the potential to be a seamless part of someone else’s value chain – a cloud-based application software provider, for example – driving network usage.

COLT cited executive support as a critical factor in their progress. While it might be difficult to draw up a conventional business case for SDN and NFV, it’s clear that software-ization of the network is a pre-requisite for exploring new opportunities. They also highlighted the importance of clean inventory data within an automated system.

Clarity of (Business) Purpose

CityFibre’s Head of Engineering provided a wholesale perspective. In essence, CityFibre is a rival to BT Openreach, with access networks in 40 cities, and providing fibre to broadband retailers such as Easynet, SSE and Sky.

CityFibre’s business objective is simple: drive usage of fibre. Shunning the luxury of large planning teams or NOCs, CityFibre sees SDN providing benefits in the form of greater visibility of how the network is being used, and the potential to dynamically move traffic to make better use of fibre assets.

Zeeta Networks explained the SDN-powered Smart City initiative in Bristol – essentially an open platform (based on ONOS) that allows any third party the ability to use network resources to support innovative city-wide applications.

Hype vs Reality

The closing panel (“Hype vs Reality”) was chaired by Aria Networks.

Robert Curran asked if customers were ready yet for the implications of SDN and NFV.

COLT’s experience was that newer, younger enterprises are more ready for the degree of control and flexibility that SDN enables. Cloud-based, pay-for-what-you-use, flex-up-and-down is much more of a standard model for them than for many larger, more traditional enterprise telecom buyers. It’s not only telcos that need to transform their procurement and finance procedures.

Adtran’s view was that this opened up new market opportunities for companies willing to take ownership of network and service management on behalf of customers. “Not every wants to run their own network.”

As a fibre wholesaler, Cityfibre was pragmatic about the role for SDN and NFV. But they were positive about any innovation that helps expand the market for services, and enables their retail partners to drive the usage of fibre assets.

On the change in the relationship between operators and vendors, panellists largely still felt there was a gap in mutual understanding yet to be closed. And while everyone understood the appeal of an accelerated product lifecycle, this had to be balanced against the need for dependable long term support. Especially for products and services at the lower levels of the network. While a flexible supply chain was good, it also needed to be secure enough to build a business on.

Takeaways

It’s clear that smaller operators also have a range of approaches to SDN and NFV.

For some, it’s a visionary mission, a belief that this is a fundamental change in the technology that simply cannot be ignored.

For others, it’s something more of an experiment, a testbed for new operating and business models, while much of the business remains “as usual”.

Perhaps that is why it is hard to fix on a clear business case or measure of progress across the industry. The real proof of the success of SDN and NFV in telco is still in the future. That’s not to say there isn’t progress, but we’re reaching a point where the technology alone is no longer the limiting factor. It’s the change required to procurement, to operations; to operator/vendor engagement; operator-to-operator practices; and to educating telcos, customers and non-traditional customers about the possibilities.

Thanks to INCA & Adtran for the event, and to the active participation from speakers and attendees!

See also: Why Orchestration Needs AI