Software-defined networks: The possibilities imagined

The emergence of SDNs are driving major tech M&As, but they could also mean considerable advantages for telecom carriers and their customers. Let an industry observer kick-start your strategy

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I wonder if my grandchildren will ask me to tell stories about how telephone networks used to work in the olden days. How many of you remember when prices for calls were so high that we would place calls to students as soon as the late news started on TV? When overseas long distance was so expensive that no summer backpacker would ever consider any form of communication back home other than a postcard?

In the olden days, corporate voice and data networks used private lines, because that was how the communications department could manage the quality attributes they required. Some companies still operate that way. Quaint, isn’t it?

For the past 25 years, companies have migrated corporate networks to become embedded within public networks. From X.25 to frame relay and ATM through PVNs within IP for data, companies have leveraged the reliability, scalability and cost advantages associated with virtual private networks.

Even carriers are exploring how similar approaches can help transform their internal network operations.

Current switching architectures require constant incremental investment, trying to ensure that equipment is provisioned to handle the projected peak traffic in the local region, coupled with additional capacity in the interest of survivability. For mobile networks, engineers need to monitor loads at thousands of access points and ensure there is sufficient capacity for signalling and payload at the node and all along the umbilical that connects everything together.

Carriers are dealing with the economic tension created by declining revenue-per-bit combined with requirements for more capital deployment thanks to our insatiable demand enabled by new devices and applications.

Software defined networks are emerging to solve capacity and scalability challenges. Some analysts are suggesting that we will see explosive growth in carrier SDN deployments over the next 5 years. These capabilities allow a wireless network to be evolved into a data center application, leveraging cloud economics and generic network appliances to reduce capital and operating costs. In a sense, carriers are seeing their networks transform to an architecture that is quite familiar to corporate network managers.

In addition, this approach could enable customized pricing and services thanks to more granular enforcement of resource allocation. Imagine the possibilities if an operator could dial in various service attributes on a per-customer basis.

Corporate customers could dynamically arrange for services capabilities that match their requirements. Imagine being able to adjust your service based on your current network requirements. For financial trading, very little data throughput is needed, but it has to go through securely, perhaps heavily encrypted and with very low latency. Other clients or applications may be able to take longer and direct their requirements to off-peak periods. Sometimes, a company may need to adjust its network requirements to accommodate the webcast of the annual general meeting or product launch from an off-site location.

The software defined networks of the future will give carriers greater flexibility, enabling them to offer customers the ability to custom tailor their telecom services to meet their changing needs.

As demands on networks increase with ever-changing traffic characteristics, new approaches are emerging to economically serve these challenging requirements. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for new architectures, such as carrier software defined networks, to find their way from the labs and into general deployment.

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