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Virtual Networks: SDN and NFV to transform legacy architectures

August 24, 2017
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India is riding the wave of a digital revolution. As per industry reports, mobile data traffic alone will grow sevenfold by 2021. Add to this the forecast for fixed line broadband uptake, and the growth numbers will be staggering. To deal with this tsunami of data demand, operators will have to transform their existing networks in a big way and make them more data-centric. Legacy voice-oriented networks are struggling to support the industry’s paradigm shift towards data. The networks of the future must be smarter, more agile, responsive and efficient, and must ensure faster time-to-market for operators. With competition in the sector heating up, these features will become all the more critical for ensuring better connectivity.

To fulfil the above requirements, the deployment of next-generation technologies such as software defined networking (SDN) and its complementary architectural concept of network functions virtualisation (NFV) is crucial. These technologies are already transforming the networking industry globally by helping operators bring down their hardware and software requirements substantially, and achieve higher value through cloud-based networks. SDN and NFV offer benefits such as better security, enhanced scalability, improved network availability, agility, cost efficiency and optimisation of operational resources.

Indian operators and enterprises too are warming up to the idea of deploying these transformative technologies. According to the latest industry reports by IDC, 63 per cent of large enterprises in the country were planning to deploy SDN as part of their network architecture in 2016. On-the-ground implementation has remained limited though. Most telecom operators are currently engaging with vendors to better understand the potential benefits and deployment scenarios in the Indian context. Going forward, the NFV and SDN market in India is expected to evolve significantly as operators launch media-rich services and enterprises adopt internet of things (IoT).

As elsewhere across the world, the Indian industry will adopt NFV to transition from hardware to software initially, and later move to the automation of service delivery processes and ultimately completely integrate service assurance into DevOps.

Drivers for adoption

The launch of 4G/long term evolution (LTE) services, increasing smartphone adoption, and the growing consumption of video and multimedia services are creating a need for operators to virtualise their networks. In fact, voice over LTE (VoLTE) and the increasing roll-out of rich media content and offerings by operators will make network transformation indispensable. Indian operators would also use SDN and NFV to better utilise the spectrum available with them.

Government-backed initiatives like Digital India and the Smart Cities Mission will, moreover, lead to increased adoption of SDN and NFV in India. As the Digital India initiative progresses, small and medium enterprises as well as public organisations will undergo significant digital transformation, which will, in turn, encourage operators to adopt SDN and NFV technologies.

Industry reports some action

The upsurge in data consumption is compelling operators to adopt network virtualisation in a big way. While Indian operators clearly lag behind their global counterparts in terms of on-the-ground implementation of SDN/NFV networks, these technologies have definitely become a key topic of discussion in their boardrooms.

Currently, Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India and Idea Cellular have begun discussions with technology providers for the virtualisation of networks, which will help launch new products and services faster. This will also help them survive in the face of growing competition, particularly from Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL) and the entire brigade of nimble over-the-top (OTT) service providers.

At present, Bharti Airtel is using SDN/NFV to offer music and on-demand video services. Earlier in the year, it signed a deal with Google to use the latter’s SDN framework-based platform for running network services in a virtualised environment. The platform will allow Airtel to adapt to new services and traffic patterns effectively and efficiently.

Meanwhile, Idea is studying and evaluating the potential for implementing SDN and NFV technologies in its networks. As per industry reports, the operator is evaluating technical proposals from vendors and is expected to deploy SDN/NFV on a limited scale by late 2017.

Vodafone too is looking at virtualising its networks using NFV. It is currently reworking the stacks, and assessing options and innovations. It plans to leverage NFV technology to offer multiple applications on a single infrastructure to drive better utilisation.

Recently, in April 2017, RJIL joined the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP) project as a platinum member to work with open source communities. It will now work with US-based carrier AT&T, the Linux Foundation and other members of ONAP to bring about a fundamental shift in the telecom framework towards cloud-centric digital models. SDN and NFV technologies will be at the core of this shift, which will help RJIL evolve its networks beyond all-IP.

Key trends

Evolving architecture

The first-generation SDN and NFV technologies were not designed to handle large networks with diverse users. Customisation to add new features required re-building the entire software stack. Scalability was also an issue as the entire application had to be scaled rather than only the parts that required more resources. Given these drawbacks, the first-generation SDN and NFV platforms were more suitable for data centres, and thus their adoption by telecom service providers was limited.

However, in the past few years, SDN and NFV have undergone several technological advancements and the second generation of SDN and NFV products is highly suited for telecom service providers, giving them a significant edge in data-centric markets. These new products have container-based micro-services architecture that allows the deployment of web-scale technologies, integration of third-party solutions, and addition of new features without reworking the entire stack. In case of a component failure, the container-based approach allows the remaining components to function normally with no disruption. Besides, the second-generation SDN and NFV technologies are highly scalable.

SDN and NFV fit

Both the technologies are highly complementary but not interdependent. While organisations typically implement NFV and SDN independent of each other, when used together the two approaches provide more value to companies. NFV enables the porting of network functions into virtual environments, while SDN enables the separation of a network’s control layer from its forwarding layer.

NFV as a concept came about much later than SDN – almost after a decade. However, NFV has already entered a phase of extensive field while it may take a little longer for SDN. In India too, most of the core deployments are expected to gradually move to NFV, driven by the adoption of services like VoLTE and IP multimedia subsystem.

Benefits for enterprises

SDN and, more particularly, NFV will find many takers amongst Indian enterprises from different domains in future, and will coexist with enterprises’ existing traditional networks. Already, several managed service providers, data centre providers and cloud service providers in the IT/IT-enabled service sectors are showing interest in SDN and NFV technologies. According to Gartner research, 5-10 per cent of the $2.3 billion server, storage and networking market in India is SDN-centric. Virtualisation will allow enterprises, particularly with multiple branches and large operations, to achieve improvisation, scalability and agility.

Several use cases are emerging for enterprise SDN and NFV. These include virtual customer premises equipment and software defined wide area networks. These provide a centralised management framework for automating network devices. NFV can also help automate network services like firewall rules, security groups and load balancers. Further, NFV can be used to automate hybrid cloud networking, which is currently often handled through manual configuration.

Going forward, businesses are expected to move towards bring-your-own-licence and pay-as-you-go cloud infrastructure models to derive enhanced value from network virtualisation.

Testing solutions

Increasing NFV deployments will call for test, measurement and monitoring of these solutions. However, developing testing and measurement (T&M) solutions for virtual network functions will not be easy. Currently, the use of NFV is at early stages and limited to a small number of service blocks such as firewalls, but the scenario will be much more complex in the future.

Operators would look for a T&M approach that allows them to know the current state of the network and its elements, provides them with the confirmation that SDN-enacted network changes have been made successfully, and automatically discovers and predicts network trouble spots. Vendors are thus looking at developing a robust network monitoring system, which will involve several probes – both physical and virtual – to monitor traffic as well as hardware- and software-based functions, and feed this data into a central data repository. Such a monitoring system will leverage open application programmable interfaces to interact with physical and virtualised network elements of different vendors, as well as allow operators to use third-party apps.

Interestingly, T&M vendors are also looking at using software programmability and automated test procedures to improve their own physical field systems.

Need for advanced service assurance for SDN and NFV

As the industry begins to shift towards SDN/NFV, service assurance and performance management will become as important as network architecture and orchestration. It will become imperative for companies to monitor and assure their network service performance as legacy and virtual networks will coexist. However, assuring virtual services will not be easy as SDN/ NFV frameworks are much more complex and dynamic than legacy solutions.

Given that SDN controllers and orchestrators can alter and reconfigure virtual services in real time, the new breed of service assurance systems must also be able to adapt to virtual services in real time and accurately reflect the current state of both virtual and physical networks. In addition, the service assurance solution for virtual services should be able to perform automated service optimisation, provide closed-loop feedback, and achieve dynamic service level agreement management in real time.

The SDN and NFV ecosystem is still evolving and thus assurance of these services is not under the spotlight. However, as the broader ecosystem encompassing these technologies matures, operators will start looking for a solution that will help them address the complex service assurance challenges related to SDN and NFV environments.

Long but promising road ahead

While the switch to SDN-and NFV-driven networks will become a necessity in the future, the transformation will be quite challenging. Operators and enterprises will have to not just modify their network architectures, but also overhaul their business models and make organisational changes. These technologies require a fundamental change in the way networks are controlled, which necessitates a completely different approach to network and employee management.

Bridging the technical skill gap, the integration of SDN with legacy networks and managing a multi-vendor environment are some of the key challenges that Indian operators are likely to face once SDN and NFV deployments gain ground. Operators would have to look for orchestration vendors that can function as service integrators, as well as ensure end-to-end integration and management of the ecosystem.

The challenges notwithstanding, SDN and NFV technologies are the future of telecom networks globally and in India. They promise the desired flexibility and scalability required for futuristic services, which will help operators to better address the growing data needs, deliver an enhanced customer experience, open up new revenue streams such as from machine to machine and IoT, and combat competition from OTT players.

In the next 15-20 months, as domestic operators plan their network modernisation and automation, a serious evaluation of SDN and NFV technologies will definitely be on the cards.

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