Recently I attended the Telecommunications Industry Association Network of the Future Conference in Dallas. The conference was well attended and featured a combination of informative keynotes and a series of lively panel discussions. I participated as a panelist for the 5G Networks track Carrier Aggregation Across Licensed and Unlicensed Spectrum. (I wrote about this in my last blog.)
Over the next few months I plan to blog about some of the conference’s themes But for this post, I want to focus on the conference’s front-and-center issue: the adoption and growth of Software Defined Networks (SDN) and Network Function Virtualization (NFV).
SDN allows network topologies to be defined via software. Think of it as using “digital wires” to interconnect the network. SDN enables the decoupling of the system that makes decisions about where traffic is sent, called the “control plane”, from the underlying systems that forward traffic to the destination, called the “data plane.” The key benefit here is that ease in changing network topology. The first network area to really benefit from SDN is called the vGI-LAN. That’s the IP network between the packet gateway and the public Internet. It’s also the natural starting place for this type of network evolution.
NFV is related to SDN and allows network functions such as the evolved packet core Mobility Management Entity (MME) or Packet Data Network Gateway (PGW) to be virtualized and “freed” from the underlying dedicated hardware, and to run on commodity systems. This is of course the overwhelming trend in enterprise and Internet computing; and it’s been fundamental to the amazing growth of offerings such as Amazon Web Services.
So what does this mean for operators who adopt the trend? With SDN or NFV virtualization, operators can:
- Quickly implement improvements, changes, and even rollout new services in totally new ways
- Rapidly align the network with current business priorities—and without lengthy multi-year projects
- Experiment with new services and changes on a sub-section of their subscriber base, in the same manner that web companies such as Amazon.com and Facebook do.
- Transition—likely slowly at first—from “waterfall” development, which is characterized by much longer lead times than Agile development.
Operators can also adopt the “DevOps” model used by many Internet companies, which closely aligns the roles of software development with production IT.
Traditionally IT teams have managed Operation System Support (OSS) and Business Support Systems (BSS) functions, and network teams have managed the core network. With virtualization, these lines are blurring. Because the increasing majority of network functions will be virtualized in commodity hardware housed in data centers, the bulk of network management might actually be controlled by IT. That’s a big change!
For vendors, this can only be positive news. Sales cycles will likely be shorter, and new opportunities for software companies to provide technology to the operators will proliferate. So it’s important that vendors in this space adapt, as well, and speak this Agile language.
SDN- and NFV-based deployments promise powerful capability for quick network evolution. Devicescape’s Wi-Fi Service Platform is built from the ground up using virtualization and can easily integrate into the NFV model. It’ll be interesting to see where the adoption of Agile processes take the network.