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Set to Grow: Operators explore the SDN/NFV potential

August 17, 2016
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The Indian telecom industry is still warming up to the idea of adopting solutions such as software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualisation (NFV). While all major companies in the Indian telecom domain are running trials with leading vendors to get their networks SDN/NFV-enabled, the cases of on-ground implementation are still rare.

Bharti Airtel is amongst the few operators in the country to have undertaken some initiatives on this front. In February 2016, the operator chose ECI’s Neptune product line to expand its mobile backhaul transport capabilities to support the increasing demand for bandwidth. Apart from enabling the smooth migration of mobile networks from 2G to 3G and 4G, and eventually to long term evolution-advanced, Neptune will help networks evolve to support NFV services as wel as SDN applications in the future. Airtel is planning to invest in virtualisation technologies as part of its $9 billion “Project Leap” initiative.

Vodafone India, too, has plans to focus on the adoption of NFV/SDN deployment on the network side in the future. To this end, the operator plans to work with original equipment manufacturers to identify key network functions that can be virtualised on the cloud. Companies such as Telenor and Aircel are also actively evaluating NFV/SDN-based network deployment. Meanwhile, Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited has stated that all of its equipment is ready for the introduction of SDN and NFV.

Besides service providers, SDN solutions are likely to find many takers among large enterprises. Managed service providers, data centre providers and cloud service providers in the IT/IT-enabled service sectors will be the early adopters of these solutions.

Demand drivers

Multiple technologies, coupled with the sheer size of the subscriber base, increase the complexity of network designs and architectures. Operators thus need to focus on reducing the dependence on proprietary hardware platforms and improving scalability to address these complexities. Although SDN and NFV have several benefits in principle, the key factors expected to encourage growth in this space are as follows:

• Cost efficiencies: Increased usage of generic computation and storage as well as switch hardware will reduce the requirement for physical equipment infrastructure in the service provider’s network, resulting in cost efficiencies.

• Higher time-to-market: Developing network ability through SDN and NFV to interact with and respond to business applications will help in launching new services quickly.

• Need for greater flexibility: There is a growing need for flexibility and scalability in network architecture and deployments. For instance, deploying a virtual node will provide greater flexibility and quicker roll-out. Operators also need to develop the ability to deploy or re-engineer network capacity as the demand changes with usage.

• SDN in data centres: The deployment of SDN tools in data centres enables network virtualisation and automates the provisioning of quality service. It also increases the usage of wide area network (WAN) links and reduces costs.

• Cloud adoption: As more and more services move to the cloud, users have come to expect on-demand access to applications, infrastructure and other IT resources. Therefore, a dynamic and scalable network architecture is essential to improve the agility of cloud services.

• Data explosion: Operators today need tools that can help them create a cost-effective and agile networking environment for handling the explosion in mobile data usage/traffic with the growing expansion of 3G/4G networks. In fact, the deployment and expansion of 4G technology will be the biggest driver for SDN and NFV adoption, as these tools will help operators maximise their returns on investment. NFV allows operators to automate processes, and im-prove their resource utilisation and service assurance.

Scope for adoption

While SDN and NFV complement each other to a large extent, NFV is likely to be adopted first in specific functional areas. The deployment of SDN may take time, in line with global trends. Operators are likely to adopt a wait-and-watch approach, or undertake more trials and experimental implementations for assessing SDN’s compatibility with the existing infrastructure.

However, there are several barriers to the adoption of these new architectures. The key among these are the huge legacy networks and centralised management of systems. This creates difficulty in integrating these technologies with legacy network infrastructure and hinders their wide scale adoption. Thus, the deployment of these technologies will involve a significant overhaul of the operator’s back-end and IT systems, as well as operations and business support systems. In addition, there are concerns regarding the lack of a common standard and framework, which may hinder seamless operations in a multi-vendor multi technology environment. Moreover, there are huge financial obligations weighing down the telecom sector, which may impact the adoption of NFV/SDN solutions in the near term, as operators are not ready to incur a significant capex on these technologies.

While NFV deployment is likely to affect network capex and opex, particularly the core network, in the near term, it will eventually bring down all network costs after the solution deployment. These include costs of data centres, moving to the core network, and reaching the access network. While cost savings in the radio access network may not be very notable because of the distributed nature of the network, significant efficiencies can be achieved by virtualising network components.


Despite a slow start in the country, the growth of the SDN/NFV market is expected to pick up pace in the long term. As factors like cost effectiveness and faster time-to-market become critical for sustaining operator profitability and market position, these solutions will become a priority in operators’ technology roadmap going forward.

SDN/NFV can help service providers address key issues like poor network quality and call drops. As NFV enhances an operator’s ability to deliver network functions and SDN helps in replacing several odd purpose-built hardware-centric solutions running on city infrastructure with few on-demand software solutions, these can also facilitate the country’s Smart Cities’ project.

Further, as the ambitious Digital India initiative gains momentum and the digital transformation of PSUs and small and medium enterprises becomes a reality, operators will be able to achieve better service provisioning and a considerably lower cost of ownership.

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