SDN and NFV: The Holy Grail?

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Let's start by building some context for SDN and NFV for this one.

SDN, software-defined networking, is the conceptual separation of control and forwarding planes in network devices. It allows external software systems to interact with and "program" the forwarding plane. The biggest advantage is the ability to have a central control application analyze an entire network and make contextual-aware decisions about how traffic should flow through the network. Routing protocols of today only really understand context from their viewpoint in the network. SDN control applications have a bird’s eye view.

NFV, network function virtualization, changes the paradigm of what a router, switch, and other network devices truly are. One basic concept (there are many more NFV use cases) is to have a very simplistic layer 2 switch as a CPE device in a subscriber’s property. It connects back to a central data center via tunneling, pseudowires, or VLAN trunking and all network functions are virtualized in the data center. These functions could be NAT, firewalls, wifi controller, storage network, video services, and any other "function" that can be dreamt of. This allows a single low-cost CPE to be utilized no matter the service being delivered.

Now that we have those two terms defined we can dig into this. A top challenge in the Service Provider space is the commoditization of legacy voice, video, and data services. Voice and video are becoming break-even businesses with data driving more of the profit margin for an operator. (For most, not all) In order to stay profitable and continue to maintain a strong business operators are looking to offer additional services like managed IT, managed Wi-Fi, Security as a service, virtual CPE, and other advanced services.

These advanced services are higher margin but tend to stretch the operational capabilities and skill sets of existing staff members. However, by combining the concept of SDN flows (or similar constructs) and the flexibility of NFV these advanced services can be delivered and tested through management platform’s graphical user interfaces by CSRs and techs or through self-service portals. These self-service portals are where customers that already have a compatible CPE can sign up for service and have it configured and tested automatically when they sign up.

So the question is this. Is this the holy grail of delivering advanced services to subscribers? Does a workflow based on a provisioning process that takes advantage of SDN and NFV concepts solve the skill set and speed to service issues?


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