What does SDN mean for telecom infrastructure?

Software-defined networking (SDN) has the potential to transform the telecom industry by improving the ability of carriers (both wired and wireless) to flexibly deliver bandwidth "on demand." It is critical that carriers improve both their network flexibility (improved customer value) and reduce their high operational costs as over-the-top providers (e.g., Google, Amazon, Skype, etc.) challenge the carriers' ability to grow their revenues and impact their margins.

SDN (and OpenFlow) technology is clearly impacting the data center network, including data centers in large carriers (e.g., AT&T, SingTel, Telefonica, etc.). In the enterprise, SDN is defined as follows:

  • Separation of control and data plane -- e.g., the intelligence of the switch/router is split out from the packet forwarding engine.
  • Programmability. The ability to centrally change traffic flows, partition the networks and provide application-level QoS.

TECH ARGUMENT: Cisco, VMware and OpenFlow fragment SDNs

In the $100 billion-plus telecom infrastructure market, the way to define SDN is less clear. Technology infrastructure spans Layer 0-7 of the OSI stack and consists of a number of unique market segments, including optical networks, carrier-grade routers, wireless edge, wireless core, CPE, etc., and the transport network must be tied to a complex set of operational support and billing (OSS/BSS) tools to manage the network and bill the customer.

The promise of SDN for the telecom industry is significant improvements in the manageability and flexibility of the network. This promise includes automated traffic management, improved bandwidth engineering, and the ability to tailor the network "on demand" to customer needs. Today the large carriers are unable to offer customers truly flexible data networks, where customers can pay for only the bandwidth they use and automatically burst traffic as applications require. And it is this bandwidth flexibility that could give carriers the edge they need to successfully deliver a range of cloud-based services.

A number of large equipment vendors have publicly discussed their SDN strategy, including Cisco, Juniper, Huawei, Infinera, ALU and Ciena. In fact, Cisco cited telecom SDN as its reason for recently acquiring Cariden for $141 million. And, there are a number of startups tying their products to telecom SDN, including Big Switch, ConteXtream, Cyan, Vello Systems and Intune Networks. The technology vendors are all vying for the attention of the big carriers that have expressed interest in SDN, including Verizon, Deutsche Telekom and NTT. These and other carriers hope SDN that can bring significant changes to their (relatively) static networks. But challenges remain, including:

  • What is the standard API (and its hardware dependencies)?
  • And how does one create an ecosystem of applications that leverage the programmability?
  • How to tie applications and traffic management systems to the underlying network infrastructure?

SDN is likely to reshape the telecom industry in new and interesting ways. Incumbent carriers are looking to increase the flexibility and manageability of their networks to deliver bandwidth where and when customers need it with a (more) self-serve model.

Large network equipment providers and startups are starting to invest heavily in new software centric network solutions. OpenFlow and other enterprise SDN technologies will emerge first in the cloud data centers of the large carriers. Telecom-specific SDN technologies (in both the transport and management areas) are coming to market during 2013 and will help carriers to improve their network flexibility and reduce network operations costs over the next three years.

Lee Doyle is Principal Analyst at Doyle Research. Doyle Research provides targeted analysis on the Evolution of Intelligent Networks: SDN, OPEX, and COTS. Lee Doyle has over 28 years experience analyzing the IT, network, and telecom markets. For more information please see doyle-research.com and email me at ldoyle@doyle-research.com.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.