Last Friday, I attended the Internet Society’s “The Future Of Internet 2014: Defining Software Defined Networks” event, which took place in Colorado. During the morning sessions, vendors shared product and technology visions and the afternoon sessions were focused on operator and end-user perspectives. My take? The organizers did a good job creating a lively atmosphere in which we could assess the realities of today’s SDN and NFV positioning/solutions and the needs of network operators. Many of the trends discussed were common and well understood themes; and there was clear consensus on the direction the industry needs to go. Here are some observations based on those discussions:
- Service providers are providing the infrastructure that connects users to content, but over the top (OTT) providers are the ones reaping the benefits. As network neutrality debates continue to flare, and application-aware networking is being used to throttle bandwidth to certain applications, large content providers are taking matters into their own hands and building their own networks. This could give them complete control over the user-experience (and revenue stream).
- Service providers need to change and adapt rapidly in response to OTT players, as the current business model is not sustainable. The cost to deliver services is increasing rapidly, yet service providers are not able to monetize the infrastructure investments. In fact average revenue per user (ARPU) is continuing to decline (for both fixed and mobile networks). Service providers need to generate new revenue streams, while looking for ways to transform their network CapEx and OpEx models.
- The common theme across operators is to combat this trend by taking advantage of the latest in IT developments that the OTTs have mastered. One area of network operator focus is SDN and NFV: to service chain virtual functions on-demand in an automated fashion. These paradigms enable network agility and programmability. Operators can use these technologies to empower end-users by offering self-service portals where applications can be enabled on-demand and paid for on a usage basis. Considering network operators are connected directly to end-users and businesses today, they have a unique advantage over OTT players.
- Traditional network function vendors who provide proprietary, hardware-based solutions are pricing their software-only virtualized solutions (VNFs) the same or even higher than their traditional vertically-integrated solutions, causing an uproar and disbelief among network operators.
- SDN and NFV will inevitably lead to commoditization of networking hardware. There is past precedence in the personal computer vertical, as well as in the server-business, both from a software and hardware perspective.
- Operators are counting on orchestration platforms to provide a high-level of automation and programmability. Network engineers that are currently spending countless hours mastering unexplainable nuances and differences in command-line interface syntax across hardware-centric devices will instead be able to use higher-order modeling languages to design and describe rich service-offerings and leave it up to the orchestration platform to implement that service across the underlying physical and virtual infrastructure.
- The future of networking is going to application-centric. In the past, we’ve seen a focus on individual building blocks: ports, cards, network elements, hops, protocols, etc. Operators are intent on shifting the focus to delivering services – ranging from that is point-to-point connectivity, to managed services including WAN optimization and security. The expectation is that SDN and NFV can be used to drive this transformation. The network should adapt to the application, rather than the other way around.
It seems clear based on this conference, and the many others I’ve attended recently, that there’s a real-consensus building over what needs to happen to drive service provider network transformation. It’s not a question of what, but when and this is evidenced by the massive number of trials and PoCs going on now to validate and test network virtualization and automation technologies. Few shifts in the networking space have happened this quickly with this much energy. I, for one, and looking forward to seeing what happens next.