Software defined networking (SDN) may be the newest tech buzz word, but it’s much more than just hype: the SDN market is expected to grow from $360 million in 2013 to $3.7 billion in 2016.

One of the largest drivers of this movement are network operators, as they see it as a way to generate “greater flexibility, dynamism and scale” in their networks. Their goal is to leverage these benefits to create “network nirvana,” a state of open communication between the app layer and all network elements, where customers can experience seamless, on-demand service with minimal delays.

Guest article by Jeff Smith, Connectivity Strategy and Marketing Director, Interxion

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Before reaching network nirvana, it’s important for network operators to understand the nuanced SDN landscape, what will be needed to do to overcome the challenges of SDN and how carrier-neutral data centers (CNDCs) can help them usher in this new era of service delivery.

Cutting through the Hype

SDN enables the separation of the network control (intelligence) and forwarding (throughput) planes so that each can be optimized, typically through the Open Flow protocol. Through the use of north- and south-bound APIs, SDN promises to aid in the automated creation, adjustment and control of network capacity, routing and prioritization, based on policies that define what an application(s) requires to deliver seamless, on-demand, secure services to optimize the end user experience. SDN provides all of these benefits without requiring network engineers to manually configure each individual network component.

Put more simply, SDN provides network administrators with more centralized control over individual network elements by automating certain networking functions, such as routers, switches and controllers, thereby accelerating response time to rapidly changing business requirements. Some have even adopted a complementary function to SDN, known as network functions virtualization (NFV), which enables the separation of network functions from hardware and focuses on services.

Ultimately, SDN and NFV are expected to accelerate the speed and improve the efficiency of data movement, improve network resilience and capabilities, make networks more flexible, and, in some instances, promise a reduction in infrastructure CAPEX. Furthermore, telecommunications providers, facing new competition from agile service providers like Google and AWS, see SDN as a way to transform their infrastructure and ultimately deliver new services more quickly to customers.

The Challenges

Despite all of these potential benefits, network operators are in an interesting position. Their challenge with SDN is in the execution of virtualizing all of the network functions and integrating them between telco environments.

After all, the new vendor developments rooted in SDN don’t fit the traditional telco model of legacy infrastructure, including dedicated servers and proprietary service delivery appliances. Like in the early days of network routing, eager vendors have jumped on the bandwagon and funneled R&D money into these new solutions, creating a “zoo of orchestrators.” This is contributing to what has been, thus far, a fragmented approach to virtualization, which could create interoperability problems down the road. To make SDN work, operators would have to restructure their traditional delivery models, while investing in and implementing new technology to virtualize functions.

Alongside the technology challenges are two additional hurdles – the need to adjust existing business processes and factor in the human element. Typically, the network, capacity, IT and troubleshooting roles are in very separate areas of an organization. Yet SDN demands that these be consolidated for a seamless approach. Also, while SDN works well in singularly controlled, high-speed, connected networks, operators will face the challenge of serving customers across partner networks, whether they’re long-haul, last mile or any other situation where “off-net” connectivity is deployed.

Given these challenges, it’s not surprising that more than 80 percent of network managers and engineers want to either “ride out the hype” of SDN, or just ignore it altogether. As much as network operators may want to achieve network nirvana for their customers, for now, their skepticism is prevailing.

Finding a Partner in a CNDC

As the networking community continues its steady march toward NFV and SDN, with the hope of moving compute loads closer to their customers, an entirely new network model will come into focus within three to five years. To really reach network nirvana, the whole network services provisioning layer will have to disappear, replaced by one characterized by customer choice and utilization.

This seamless transition from the old to the new will be enabled by carrier neutral colocation data center providers. More than just storage facilities for servers, these connectivity-rich facilities already foster communities of interest for companies operating in the same sector and provide them access to a wide range of carriers, ISPs and other connectivity providers, like CDN operators. They understand the challenges ahead of the various players that reside inside and outside of their facilities and will facilitate discussions between the vendors, telcos, systems integrators and developers to enable them to deliver more agile and efficient IT.

The transition to an SDN model is an ambitious one that will turn telco services on their head, but if it’s done correctly, network nirvana will wait for vendors, operators and most importantly, their customers.

For more information on SDN, read the Aberdeen report SDN: Do Believe the Hype.

Jeff-Smith-150x150Jeff Smith: Strategy and Marketing Director, Connectivity Segment, Interxion. Jeff is responsible for the overall development of Interxion’s Connectivity business, market and product strategy. He’s focused on the continued growth of their communities of interest across the Carrier, CDN and Internet Exchange sectors. Prior to joining Interxion, Jeff worked at Level 3, where he held the position of Senior Director Connectivity Services and was responsible for significantly growing the Access, Ethernet, IP VPN, Managed Services and Security portfolio across EMEA. Jeff has over 20 years’ experience in Telecommunications across multiple roles in various markets including EMEA, Australia & NZ.

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