Communications industry conclaves around the world are abuzz with excitement about the Next Big Thing: Software Defined Networks. And it really is no wonder: the prospect of near-term reductions in both capital and operating costs and the opportunity to centrally visualize and manage one’s network infrastructure while adroitly launching juicy new offers is, to say the least, pretty exciting. But before we pop open the bubbly, let’s remember this is a journey, not a point-in-time occurrence, making the creation of a well-considered roadmap to that destination the most important action for the present.
The utopian view of the SDN-driven infrastructure features centralized network control functions in one virtualized and interconnected software domain. Operator product executives will align services and control activities around market opportunities and propel their offer down a road paved with standardized equipment running at operator speeds and reliability levels.
Too good to be true? Proponents say it can and will happen, and standards groups are busily outlining their vision of the future, but critics point to operators’ unique performance and reliability requirements as hurdles yet to be overcome. Still, progress is being made. Network elements previously composed of hardware with control logic embedded in ASICs are now available as a combination of server-resident software running on high-performance standard hardware. Policy, Diameter Signaling Router (DSR), Subscriber Data Management and Online Charging are among those elements enjoying enthusiastic and growing operator acceptance.
Simultaneously, discussions around Network Function Virtualization (NFV) are gaining traction as an operator-led initiative to drive control functions to a cloud environment, allowing the creation and retirement of virtual network appliances as business models and operational loads dictate.
The current reality, however, is much more complex. There will be multiple operating systems, software platforms and hypervisors in a single data center. To overcome this challenge and still enjoy improved productivity, a staged migration is required. At first, clusters of kindred appliances will run on common hypervisors and operating systems. Rather than one orchestration function, orchestrators will communicate with both peer and ‘master’ orchestrators that oversee the network.
Following this, maturation in inter-orchestrator communications will give operators the ability to break down these barriers across software vendors, versions and appliance types. These steps prepare the network for the eventual decoupling of control and routing/forwarding functions.
The presumed business case for the move to SDN is compelling: better cost profiles; the ability to create market-facing network streams on the fly; and a more fluid, dynamic environment in which to deliver robust, profitable digital services. The journey is just beginning, but the mandate is clear: commit now, build the roadmap and start your engines.
For more information, download the whitepaper “Thinking Networks Evolution: The New Diameter Network Moves to the Cloud.”
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