Most analysts agree that the Telecom Networking industry, which has showed in the past 20 years a methodical pace of change, is now approaching a disruptive transformation period! A world where new technologies used to replace previous ones in an orderly fashion may soon enter into a complete revolution. Somehow similar to what happened to traditional internet with the advent of Web 2.0 and Social Media, this revolution will reshape winners and losers in the market, as well as it will change the overall networking industry ecosystem.

The transformation of the networking world we are referring to includes two radical changes in the underlying infrastructure. Firstly, the moving away from customized and propriety hardware platforms to lower-cost industry-standard platforms. Secondly, the transition to a software-driven network architecture, inherently capable to cost-effectively handle the huge growth forecasted in data traffic, as well as able to flexibly manage the explosion of new resource-demanding services.

Two evolving technologies are driving this radical transformation. The first of these, Software Defined Networking (SDN), allows network services abstraction by decoupling decisions about traffic (the control plane) from the underlying systems that forward traffic to the selected destination (the data plane), making it easier and less expensive to manage large and complex networks. The second enabler is represented by Network Functions Virtualization (NFV), an architecture concept that proposes using IT virtualization technologies to virtualize entire classes of network functions, increase telecom network resource utilization, and reduce the costs associated with the introduction of new services.

Software Defined Networking

Software Defined Networking (SDN) decouples the network control (the control plane) and the forwarding functions (the data plane), enabling the former to become directly programmable and the underlying infrastructure, that forward traffic to the selected destination, to be abstracted for applications and network services.

Decoupling control and forwarding functions brings more flexibility in how networks are deployed and managed, but most importantly, it allows many of the SDN components to be deployed on industry-standard (less expensive) servers.

In SDN, architecture applications access all network services using an API abstraction. Northbound  APIs  make  it  easy  for  provisioning  systems  to configure the  network to support  various  kinds  of  services  with  fine grained control  over  Service Level Agreements  and  Traffic  Engineering  parameters.

SDN-related products in the market today include routers, switches, and network orchestration software that utilize programmable network protocol such as OpenFlow. This emerging industry-standard provides access between the forwarding plane of a network switch or router and a network controller, facilitating more sophisticated traffic management and engineering.

Network Functions Virtualization

As already experienced in IT contexts and in Data Centers, virtualization technologies increase resource utilization, thereby reducing CAPEX and OPEX through reduced equipment costs and decreased power consumption.

The Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) concept proposes to extend the “Virtualization/Cloud approach” to entire classes of network node functions, by building blocks that may be connected for creating communication services. A virtualized network function may consist of one or more virtual machines running different software and processes, on top of industry-standard servers, switches, and storages, or even cloud computing infrastructure, instead of having custom hardware appliances for each dedicated network function.

Almost any network function can be virtualized, including Network Appliances (firewalls, gateways, Broadband Remote Access Servers, …), Network Services (traffic analysis, network monitoring tools, load balancers and accelerators), as well as Network Applications.

The ability to deploy virtual versions of network functions on standard hardware reduces time-to-market of new services and provides greater scalability (both upward or downward). In addition, being standards-based, it creates an open virtual appliance market, allowing greater innovation and making it easier for new players to enter the networking market.

Coupling NFV and SDN: a scenario with many synergies

At  a  very  high  level,  NFV  and  SDN  share many characteristics. The  central  idea, for both of them, is the separation  of  hardware  and  software  for network components, with the possibility to leverage independently developed software on top of low-cost industry-standard hardware. Until today, the highest interest in SDN technologies has been shown in Data Centers and Cloud Computing arenas, while Telecom Carriers are driving many of the NFV initiatives.

While either SDN or NFV can be deployed on their own, there are possible synergies in combining them. In the networks of the future, the two technologies will be complementary in addressing different elements of a software-driven evolution: SDN increases network flexibility through holistic management of the network and enables rapid innovation and lowers operating expenses; NFV works to reduce network operator CAPEX & OPEX through reduced equipment costs and makes deployment of new capabilities easier and faster.

Conclusions

Embracing NFV and SDN represents a radical transformation for network operators, as it requires significant changes in the network culture created by decades of procuring & building networks in collaboration with traditional Network Vendor Equipments. Nevertheless, those network operators that will successfully overcome these challenges will find themselves in a far better position than today for competing with OTT and with aggressive new entrants into the network business.

For Network Vendor Equipments, NFV brings advantages but also poses relevant challenges, including  the opportunity/risk of reshaping the entire telecommunication vendors landscape. Vendor players may need to position/re-position their offering in the new NFV ecosystem, and several network vendors are already working in this direction, by combining their traditional proprietary solutions with new NFV- oriented software and hardware.

We may be at the dawn of a new era in the networking industry, and NFV & SDN are the “basic tools” needed to enable this revolution.