SDN: The Driving Force Behind Mobile

What are the latest developments in SDN and NFV that are driving adoption in the global telecoms industry?


Did you know that the average family of four now owns 24 connected devices in total, compared to just eight devices in 2012? This is according to recent research from GSMA, which also reveals this figure is set to rise to 50 devices by 2022! The amount of data being generated by these handheld devices is rising sharply – more data will be created this year than the previous 5,000 years of humanity put together – putting significant pressure on Communication Service Providers’ (CSPs) infrastructure. On top of this, customers have high expectations for seamless connectivity across all of their devices. They don’t want to see interruptions to the services they’re accessing or issues that could impact call drops or live streaming; but instead, want high quality, bundled services that work across multiple channels – whether that’s their smartphone, tablet or fixed line. We’re also dealing with an increasingly volatile mobile landscape – with fixed and mobile operator services converging, such as Vodafone and Kabel Deutschland in Germany, and BT and EE in the UK.

The competitive nature of today’s personal and professional environments requires a high degree of agility in terms of IT infrastructure, and as a result, we’re seeing far greater traction in the uptake of Network Function Virtualisation (NFV) and Software-Defined Networking (SDN). The former enables CSPs to reduce the cost of a network deployment by using a combined approach of data centres and cloud infrastructure, whereas the latter is used to create a more dynamic network that can manage traffic and bandwidth better, enabling CSPs to provision new services quicker. Here, I explore the latest developments in SDN and NFV that are driving adoption in the global telecoms industry.

The emergence of SD-WAN

Many CSPs are starting to commercialize products around Software-Defined Wide Area Networks (SD-WAN), whereby physical WANs are virtualized and migrated to data centres. From here, the network is automated using a software-defined controller; so that multiple routes can be created without having to build lots of different routers or infrastructure. As the WAN is virtualized, CSPs can provision any transport protocol as needed, including 3G, 4G, LTE, MPLS, internet, ethernet or Wi-Fi. SD-WANs are also typically more secure than traditional solutions, as security is handled in one centralized system rather than multiple appliances. A number of players in the market are starting to test the waters with the technology, with Verizon recently partnering with SD-WAN firm, Viptela, to implement a software-defined architecture within its framework and cut implementation costs.

Increased virtualization

CSPs are increasingly virtualizing their network infrastructure to reduce the cost of deployment. It is recommended they start with simple components first, such as the core network, before moving on to more complex parts, such as the access work, which provides direct connection to the customer.

Managing mobile traffic through SDN

With widespread 4G coverage already available across large pockets of the UK, and 5G services set to be rolled out within the next decade, operators are starting to look at how they can use SDN to better manage mobile traffic. Some aspects of the network, such as the backhaul, are being virtualized and migrated to data centres and the cloud to enable mobile operators to introduce new services more quickly.

The development of hybrid cloud services

While fully cloud-based services are still a little way off, CSPs are moving towards Network-as-a-Service; whereby infrastructure is dynamically provisioned through the data centre. Many organizations are now at the hybrid cloud stage, whereby some aspects of the network are hosted on-premise and some components have been shifted to the cloud.

Is SDN more advanced than other solutions in the market?

Many major CSPs still use MPLS networks – infrastructure with lots of separate connections – to manage their growing mobile traffic loads. While this is effective, to be able to provision MPLS networks at the next level, field engineers would need to examine each of the individual routers within the network, which is costly and timely to do. This is why SDN is being seen as a panacea for many.

CSPs will undoubtedly come up against some challenges to migrate from physical infrastructure to SDN, such as moving from a legacy hardware-oriented MPLS network environment to one that supports greater automation, as well as dealing with changes in network and service management practices, policies procedures and the OSS/BSS architecture required to support increased virtualisation. That said, the fact that there are pockets of activity springing up by the likes of Verizon, Viptela and VeloCloud indicates that the value of SDN is really starting to resonate with the market. For the next five years, we will continue to see the evolution of SDN and NFV; and it will be interesting to see how the major players battle it out to deliver new services in a bid to increase their market share in this exciting new industry. 

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