Embracing the Inevitability of Software-Defined Networking

Where in the past, network monitoring, analytics, provisioning, and automation may have been achieved by network operators and service providers deploying costly customized development initiatives, each aimed at a specific network component, SDN changes the face of network automation by providing a playbook of open standards and application programming interfaces (APIs). These enable network equipment and software to integrate tightly together, thus reducing the development hurdles that previously hamstrung automation and analysis. Ultimately, SDN enables intelligent network automation to become a reality for service providers and enables them to realize the value associated with it.

According to a report by Market Research Future, the global software-defined networking (SDN) market is projected to increase at a 39% compound annual growth rate from last year to reach approximately $61 billion by 2023. North America continues to be the dominant SDN market worldwide, in part due to ongoing advances in the technology. However, Europe and the Asia-Pacific markets are expected to experience significant growth over the next five years as well. Meanwhile, many leading global carriers already have SDN initiatives under way that strive to virtualize large parts of their networks and associated services.

As IDC networking analysts Rohit Mehra and Brad Casemore have written about SDN, “It's not so much the next big thing on the networking horizon as much as it is a reality and inevitability for enterprises and service providers worldwide, even for those who've yet to embrace it.”

Leaving aside the meteoric market predictions and qualified claims of inevitability, there’s no question that SDN has changed the industry by decoupling network controls from hardware and allowing the network to be managed by a much more flexible software layer. This in turn opens up the networking space to a larger professional network by including software developers, increasing the potential for innovation.

Where in the past, network monitoring, analytics, provisioning, and automation may have been achieved by network operators and service providers deploying costly customized development initiatives, each aimed at a specific network component, SDN changes the face of network automation by providing a playbook of open standards and application programming interfaces (APIs). These enable network equipment and software to integrate tightly together, thus reducing the development hurdles that previously hamstrung automation and analysis. Ultimately, SDN enables intelligent network automation to become a reality for service providers and enables them to realize the value associated with it.

Widespread Vertical Penetration and More Intelligent Smart Grids

While many SDN deployments in recent years have focused on data center networks, a number of other current and future drivers such as the widespread adoption of cloud computing, the imminent arrival of 5G, and the surge of data traffic expected from the Internet of Things (IoT) are now encouraging service providers to integrate this next-generation architecture into their networks. In terms of verticals, banking, financial services, and insurance (BFSI); consumer goods and retail; healthcare; manufacturing; and government, among others, are all poised to take advantage of SDN.

Additionally, as public utilities move toward implementing smart grids, new operational challenges have emerged that are similar to those faced by other network operators. Since smart grids rely heavily on communication networks, by applying SDN technology, the efficiency and resiliency of smart grid systems can be improved. SDN, with its programmability, protocol independence, and granularity features, can help the smart grid to integrate different standards, cope with diverse communication systems, and help perform traffic flow orchestration to meet specific quality of service requirements.

With so many current and future use cases in play, let’s take a look at the core benefits of SDN.

Advantages of SDN

For service providers, one of the key benefits of deploying SDN is faster service activation. When processes required to activate a service are unified and automated, less human intervention is required and service providers can achieve quote-to-cash more quickly. Additionally, service providers reduce operating costs associated with service activation because less human intervention is necessary.

The chief advantages of SDN for service providers, of course, are network and hardware optimization as well as continuous monitoring and predictive analytics to achieve enhanced performance. SDN enhances a services provider’s ability to optimize bandwidth and network elements usage by better keeping track of inventory and eliminating the unnecessary stranding of bandwidth and network devices. By optimizing bandwidth and network element usage, service providers can also avoid purchasing additional devices, reducing capital expenditures. Additionally, by reducing vendor and equipment lock-in, operators can select the vendors and models that are best suited to meet their requirements, without having their management software dictate which hardware must be deployed.

With an Avaya survey indicating that network downtime can cause a business to incur lost revenue of $140,000 per incident on average, $540,000 for financial services firms, and even higher costs for large service providers (not to mention the risk of physical harm added for public utilities), the raison d'être of SDN is the increased service assurance it provides. By deploying SDN to automatically detect, predict, and resolve performance issues and network outages, service providers can greatly reduce the number of service outages. This also reduces operating expenditures associated with the staff required to resolve issues when compared to a traditional non-SDN network. Trouble spots and bottlenecks can be identified in advance of an outage, with predictive analysis enabling graceful mitigation. Additionally, SDN also reduces operating expenditures associated with the staff required to resolve issues when compared to a traditional non-SDN network.

Going hand in hand with the increased service assurance of SDN is enhanced customer satisfaction and retention. Higher customer satisfaction in turn means reduced churn and increased customer lifetime value.

Do Not Try This at Home

The greatest challenge to deploying SDN is the adoption of the open standards, which is currently being addressed by the demand service providers are placing on vendors. However, waiting for standards to gel is often an excuse to delay SDN deployments that can bring immediate benefits today.

The best deployment strategy is to start now with flexible software APIs and match the speed at which you evolve to SDN with the customer demand that it helps best satisfy, whether that means a specific customer vertical or network function such as service deployment. If service providers attempt to evolve all areas of the network to SDN at once, they’re certain to set themselves up for failure because of the massive scope of the effort.

The message here for service providers is not to attempt to deploy SDN on their own. The essence of SDN is to use software to coordinate and manage disparate elements of the network. So it’s best to work through the deployments leveraging the expertise of a team you can trust.

The Future of SDN

In the near future, SDN will become more important as the IoT matures and its demands on the network increase. To gain a better sense of just how prominent SDN will become, consider a Gartner report that predicts the number of IoT devices will reach 20.8 billion by 2020, up from 6.4 billion two years ago. Cisco puts the number of connected devices at greater than 50 billion. Bear in mind, we’re not just talking about smart refrigerators, wearables, and autonomous vehicles, but also smart systems and applications in agriculture, oil and gas, and transportation, as well as public safety and security infrastructure spanning the entirety of smart cities.

In the U.S., New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have launched smart city initiatives, as have so-called Tier II cities such as Boston, Charlotte, NC, Columbus, OH, and Kansas City, MO. If not tomorrow then certainly in the next decade, smart city systems and applications will be coming to an urban or suburban community near you too.

For service providers, SDN’s ability to intelligently route traffic and use underutilized network resources will make it much easier to prepare for the data surge caused by IoT and the development of smart city technologies. SDN will eliminate bottlenecks and induce efficiencies to help the data generated by the IoT to be processed without placing a larger strain on the network. It will provide the network agility and elasticity, which the IoT demands. Moreover, SDN will offer an open environment for application developers to develop innovative tools and software connecting the IoT more effectively.

While it’s difficult to predict if the nirvana of the zero-touch network will ever be achieved, service providers will continue to push the boundaries of SDN, driven by the current and future trends of the cloud, IoT, and 5G. With respect to the latter, the digital transformation of network infrastructure through SDN will play a significant role in the commercialization of 5G.

Beyond increased bandwidth and low latency, 5G networks have a complex architecture, combining cloud infrastructure, a virtualized network core, intelligent edge services, and a distributed computing model that derives insights from the data generated by billions of devices. 5G is also about flexibility, agility, manageability, and the ability to create new services, all of which compose the foundation of SDN.

Dean Campbell has been with LightRiver since 2004. As chief technology officer, he is responsible for the development of LightRiver’s product and technology solutions portfolio, translating complex solutions into clear value propositions relevant to LightRiver markets. He leads the Pre-Sales Engineering and the Project Management teams and maintains technical relationships with LightRiver’s vendor partners. Throughout his career, Dean’s focus on technology as an enabler has always been paired with the recognition that the human side of the equation is equally important. He brings over 20 years of IT management, software applications development, and large-scale data-networking experience to LightRiver; has held leadership roles across the technology value chain; and was a pioneer in the development of e-Commerce infrastructures, working with established and startup organizations. Dean holds a BA in Computer Sciences from Rutgers University, as well as multiple technology certifications including, but not limited to, Carrier Ethernet Professional and PMP Project Management.

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