Emerging SDN/NFV Market Serves Up Plenty Of Challenges For Carrier Ethernet Providers

By Annie Lindstrom published at Ethernet Academy

A significant number of network operators are beginning to deploy Software Defined Network/Network Functions Virtualization (SDN/NFV) solutions to make services and associated applications easier to manage, grow and monetize – as well as to improve the customer experience. As they begin their migrations, however, service providers are facing a number of complex challenges, according to Rosemary Cochran, principal analyst and co-founder at Vertical Systems Group, Inc., Boston.

A recent Vertical Systems Group survey asked network providers throughout the world about their SDN/NFV deployments and plans for Ethernet and IP VPN services. Analysis of their responses revealed that nearly one-third of them have already started to, or plan to, implement SDN/NFV in their networks in 2015. In addition, more than half say they expect to begin, or are considering, implementations next year, said Cochran.

“The benefits of SDN/NFV are enticing, but the challenges that Ethernet and IP VPN service providers face transforming their existing platforms are considerable,” said Cochran.

The survey findings identified a number of challenges that service providers are facing as they plan to implement SDN/NFV. These include researching nascent SDN/NFV technologies, undertaking proof of concept projects, quantifying customer benefits, and forecasting the impact on OpEx and CapEx.

The overarching challenge that all service providers face is migrating their legacy network infrastructures to a virtualized environment. Before they begin their migrations, service providers must determine how far they want to go with their efforts. This includes identifying the end goals on which they will focus – for example, reducing OpEx or CapEx, or, rolling out new services. Making these important decisions will help them determine the investment and resources required, as well as the implementation timeline, she explained.

“These challenges relate to every stage of the migration process,” said Cochran. “For example, some providers are already deploying new SDN-enabled services on their networks without initially impacting their existing services. But, they will have to manage coexisting service platforms until they complete their transitions to the new virtual environment.”

Evolving Standards

Another significant challenge is the fact that SDN/NFV standards are in their early stages and still evolving. The general concepts are in place and open APIs enable services to be rolled out quickly, but whatever is done today must be capable of migrating to whatever becomes more established over time. Standards-based solutions are particularly vital for enabling carrier interconnections, she added.

Most Ethernet and IP VPN service providers believe in SDN/NFV’s benefits as fundamental to the growth of their businesses. However, some are hesitant to begin investing in equipment and other resources until they have a better understanding of the measurable benefits they will enjoy by migrating to a more dynamic environment.

“Many people point to the data center as a place that demonstrates the benefits of virtualization, and it is a good functioning model,” said Cochran. “However, carriers are looking at a much more diverse, geographically dispersed, interconnected and regulated environment.”

Because there is so much involved, and so much at stake for carriers, there are many people and industry groups such as the MEF, Open Networking Foundation (ONF) and European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) working on carrier-sized issues and standards. At the same time, solutions vendors are offering their own proprietary approaches too, she added.

Just as it took time for Ethernet to migrate from the local area network (LAN) to the wide area network (WAN), it will take years for the migration to virtualization to occur. For example, service providers that take a customer facing approach with SDN-enabled services need to interface with existing operations and billing systems. On the other hand, service providers that are focused on reducing OpEx are working on upgrading back-end systems first. Customers and service providers will benefit either way, explained Cochran.

“The challenge for service providers is writing their own roadmap to deal with the many pieces of their own networks, as well as changes in all of the other networks they connect to, which are going to change at their own pace, too,” said Cochran.

Service providers that do not yet have a plan or the resources to begin their migrations today will benefit from early adopters’ experiences. They will be a step or two behind, but they may be able to avoid making some costly mistakes, she added.

“Regardless of the challenges, demand for bandwidth is soaring, and customers want quicker turn-up and on demand service functionality from their network providers. The groundwork has been laid for SDN/NFV and people believe in the benefits of virtualized network services. The migration is already underway,” said Cochran.