2014 has been predicted by some as the year that both Software Defined Networking and Network Function Virtualisation become a reality in the European telecoms market.
Hyped as the cure-all for immobile telco networks, last year saw some of the first large scale trials of virtual products, whether it was Telefónica partnering with NEC in Brazil to bring part of its customer premises equipment to the cloud, or Deutsche Telekom looking to SDN/NFV as a means of making its business more nimble and preparing it for ever increasing traffic growth.
The consensus appears to be while SDN and NFV is coming, this year will very much be the time of live testing and further trials. Dana Cooperson, VP and Practice Leader, Network Infrastructure at Ovum, said: “There is great enthusiasm tempered by the usual telco pragmatism. [Operators] must do proof of concept tests to make sure the services work properly and at the right performance, and they must be maintainable.”
Vendors are sympathetic to the challenges faced by operators. The irony is while SDN and NFV should make things easier, getting to that point is a complex process. Phil Tilley, Marketing Director, Cloud Strategy and Solutions, Alcatel-Lucent, said: “There are some operational challenges to face and classical organisational issues… when you move network functions from hardware to a computing environment, it’s not a question of running software on a virtual machine, you need to reengineer the software itself.”
Eric Gregory, Senior Product Manager at Radisys, said a greater reality has set in among operators in terms of what they can actually achieve and in terms of the potential cost savings of SDN and NFV. He said conversation last year was dominated by how much could be saved on both capex and opex, but most now accept that it is only opex that will be affected. “It’s a question of ‘how do I manage my equipment better and squeeze what I already have’,” he warned.
According to Tilley, solely looking at the cost benefits is short-sighted. He said: “If it was a cost cutting product, it wouldn’t take the market forward. The other advantage is it can enable dynamic services [particularly] if you look at the substantial amount of data you can get from a VoLTE customer such as billing, location services etc.”
Unsurprisingly, given its partnership with Telefónica, Gerry Feeney, Head of Market Development for NEC’s SDN/NFV Program in EMEA, argued that the evolved packet core is the easier part of the network to virtualise first.
He said: “The carrier core is under the operator’s control so it’s easier to manage. By going from proprietary to off the shelf, it’s still within the control of the telco control office but there are quite notable cost savings. If you move from a commercial platform to off the shelf, you are adopting an IT model, which is easier to upgrade and maintain.”
Ultimately, both NFV and SDN look like a longer term bet for the industry. Cooperson said: “Vendors always talk up the benefits too much, label everything SDN and NFV even when they aren’t – the equivalent of real estate companies widening the boundaries of the toniest neighbourhoods – and downplay the hard work. This is a huge change in the way networks are built and maintained; it will not be done in a day, week, or year, think a decade.”