SDN – the key to thinking outside and beyond the box

Visitors to the Broadband World Forum conference in Amsterdam this week will hear and see a lot about SDN, which offers the promise of escape from “the expensive proprietary black box of network device manufacturers”.

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Visitors to the Broadband World Forum conference in Amsterdam this week will hear and see a lot about SDN, otherwise known as software defined networking, a concept causing a flurry of excitement in the telecommunciations sector.

At the website, Stan Gibilisco, a science and technology writer, tries a simple definition: SDN is “an approach to networking in which control is decoupled from hardware and given to a software application called a controller”, he says.

For those unaccustomed to the jargon, Mr Gibilisco helpfully adds that SDN’s aim is to allow network engineers and administrators to respond quickly to changing business requirements. And this is where all the industry talk about the process, and the high level of expectation it is generating, starts to become clearer.

Ahead of the forum, one key speaker from the offers an upbeat appraisal of what lies ahead.

Imran Malik, the director of professional services for du, says the growing rate of SDN vendor acquisitions "justifies the hype that surrounds the SDN adoption".

“SDN provides a new and dynamic network architecture that transforms traditional network backbones into rich service-delivery platforms,” he says. “A few of the many potential benefits of SDN are user mobility, server virtualisation and the ability to respond to changing business conditions in a manner that today’s conventional network architectures can’t handle.”

The benefits for business will be striking, he says, as a range of products is developed for different market sectors.

The effect , Mr Malik believes, will be a dramatic reduction in capital and operational expenditure “by enabling us to deploy commodity equipment that doesn’t have expensive, built-in control-planes”.

For telecoms network providers, he says, SDN offers the promise of escape from “the expensive proprietary black box of network device manufacturers”.

“SDN would also enable providers like du to move away from embedded routing and switching at the network device layer by separating the physical network layer and vitalising the network management layer,” he adds.

This will make the network efficient and effective, bringing the flexibility that would provide a catalyst for the improved customer experience the industry was anxious trying to create.

However, some voices are urging a sense of proportion.

“The reality is that we’re several years away from an environment where SDN saves the world as everybody is proclaiming,” James Feger, the vice-president of network strategy at the US communications company CenturyLink’s, told this month’s Telecommunications Industry Association conference in Washington.

Other commentators also warning of a bumpy ride for those embracing SDN.

At the telecoms website Light Reading, Alan Breznick, described as a “cable/video leader”, argues that it hardly matters whether SDN is over or underhyped.

“SDN will disrupt and transform the telecom industry over the next few years, leading to new winners and losers and a potential vendor shake-out,” he says, citing the views of a group of five analysts:

These experts appear agreed that along with its closely relation, network functions virtualisation (NFV), SDN technology is on course to cause “major changes in telco network design, operations, engineering, security, support, and staffing, among other areas”.

However, one of the quintet, Patrick Donegan, a senior analyst at the site’s research arm Heavy Reading, warns that while network virtualisation offers great opportunities, there are also security risks that will require attention because operators will be “taking things from a nice central place and scattering them to the winds”.

And Graham Finnie, Heavy Reading’s chief analyst, says there may be unwelcome implications for staff as companies address a massive need for retraining.

“SDN/NFV will require a complete transformation of operations and support systems and tremendous re-skilling by the operators. It will also mean significant redundancies … whole groups and departments may go away.”

With SDN cropping up repeatedly on the agenda in Amsterdam, these are among the issues likely to be debated as the Broadband World Forum speakers trade thoughts on bold but controversial advances in information technology.

They may wish to bear in mind the words of Steve Alexander, the chief technology officer with the US telecoms networking supplier Ciena, who found himself at this year’s Ethernet & SDN Expo event in New York fighting the mixture of inertia and “loud voices” of opposition which, he said, threatened SDN evolution.

One day, he predicted, people would look back in amazement when considering “the most transformative thing we’ve come up with in decades”.