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SDN, NFV and Swivel-Chairs

23 Sep 2014 / Nirav Modi

Over the past 18 months, the NFV story has grown, and dramatically so. It was only back in January 2013 that I took the weather with me from Chicago to Sophia (South of France), where I participated in the inaugural ETSI NFV ISG meeting. Nearly 100 of us were stuck in our hotels in beautiful Sophia when the city ground to a halt because of unseasonably cold weather and snow. There’s some irony here. Parallels can be drawn to the situation operators face with vendor lock-in. Perhaps it was karma catching up with vendors.

Having recently attended Light Reading’s NFV and the Data Center show in Santa Clara, it is clear that in the time since that formative meeting, network operators have moved beyond the what and why of NFV and are in the midst of working through the when and how.

Coming right on the heels of the SDN revolution, NFV was the catalyst that pushed network transformation past escape velocity. There’s no stopping the movement now. Worldwide, operators are redrawing networks, migrating technologies, overhauling operational procedures and racing to build software-driven networks and service-centric architectures.

The initial question of whether NFV is possible from an architectural perspective has given way to a clear focus on working out how to operationalize and integrate the technology. Several vendors have come to the market with NFV management and orchestration platforms to address this new operational need. The concern operators have with this very targeted approach is that it creates another management silo and exacerbates existing swivel-chair operational procedures.

In the past operators took for granted that a new box or technology meant they had to integrate yet-another-management-system. But if you listen to operators, technology is no longer king. Operators actually don’t want to be “operators” anymore. The technology is not what drives revenue – it’s merely the means to an end. They want to be application and service providers … well, swivel-chair provisioning and management is about as far away as one can get from the service plane. Here’s James Feger’s take (CenturyLink): “We want to get to the point where we deliver the application or service and delight the customer, and they don’t have to think about the network.”

So what does this all mean? In a nutshell, orchestration must support the converged network and cloud. AT&T’s announcement on their User-Defined Network Cloud initiative paints the vision and goals very clearly.

NFV-centric orchestration falls short of the operator end-goal: a fully programmable fabric of networking and virtualized resources. I am confident that stitching services hop-by-hop through disparate networking systems, technologies and domains is not on an operator’s Christmas wish list.

For network operators, the combined orchestration of WAN and data center resources enables:

  • Policy-based placement of VNFs across the entire pool of virtualized resources.
  • End-to-End service chaining spanning both the physical network as well as the data center.
  • Follow-the-sun (and follow-the-people) resource allocation models, coordinating network bandwidth and applications.
  • Service-layer fault management, correlation and isolation across networking and data center resources.
  • Unified management of the service-quality and user-experience.
  • Data center interconnect virtualization allowing for efficient sharing of resources that span multiple domains.

Operators can only realize the complete potential of carrier SDN and NFV when they can manage all of their resources through a single-pane of glass. This enables them to dynamically design, assemble and deliver revenue-generating services across their infrastructure. In fact, it is worth mentioning that the single-pane of glass is very likely to be an M2M interface. Operators want automation; they want RESTful API-driven solutions and programmatic interfaces. The orchestrator must expose the network and data center resources as programmable entities, and allow operators to define services with commonly used object modeling languages (e.g. JSON, TOSCA, YANG). This is the future. To all the operators out there - we hear you loudly and clearly.

Anything short of this will leave operators with the heavy-lift of trying to integrate SDN and NFV into their networks without the necessary tools to ensure technology and network domain hand-offs are seamless and aligned at the service layer. It will also keep the operations team spinning on their swivel chairs.

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