Written by Ronan Kelly, CTO at ADTRAN
SDN, or software defined networking, is fast becoming recognised as tomorrow’s norm; its impact on the entire networking industry, the enterprise and consumers, will be unprecedented. To consumers, it means widespread access to ultra-fast, reliable and high-quality connectivity, which they and their applications control. To communities on the wrong side of the digital divide, it enables engagement on an international stage, leveraging the higher capacities available with the next generation of SDN controlled access technologies, to both avail of and offer services from cloud infrastructures. To business, it means elevation to a smarter, better informed and more agile working capability, enabling them to lower communications costs via solutions from the rapidly emerging SD-WAN sector, while also taking receipt of new cloud based virtualised network functions within minutes, vs. the weeks traditionally required to deploy and install physical box incarnations. For network and OTT (over the top) service providers, it creates an opportunity for collaboration, which will allow cloud-based services to be delivered with an SLA, while the network operator gets to monetise their network investment in return.
Put crudely, SDN is the means by which intelligent software can be overlaid on an existing ‘dumb pipe’ infrastructure, creating a network that recognises the information traffic flowing across it and making changes in line with the type of the traffic and any associated SLAs offered. With SDN and network elements that support Openflow, these changes can be made in the order of tens of thousands per second; a quantum leap from its predecessor, SNMP, or simple network management protocol, where the frequency of configuration changes was closer to tens of hundreds per second. Fine for managing customer speed upgrades, but far from what I would describe as ‘application aware’.
The programmability SDN brings to networks allows new services to be deployed in ways not previously possible. Cloud based service providers have the opportunity to operate on a network infrastructure that is fully SDN controlled from the data centre through to the subscriber. As part of that, they can transcend from being a best effort OTT service, towards being an SLA guaranteed replacement for on-premise applications and infrastructures.
A lot of this new service-focused capability stems from extending OpenFlow right to the network edge. It’s being factored into our hardware designs, which will allow customers and network operators to realise substantial OPEX savings when running their networks, while also providing an agile foundation for future cloud services, be they home grown or from an external source.
OTT versus the Network: Historical Challenges
One of the challenges faced by OTT providers is they have very little control over the quality of experience for the end user. Cloudification of enterprise applications is increasing all the time. You only need to look at Microsoft 365 or Salesforce to see how dependent many enterprises already are on cloud-based applications. The same thing applies to consumer OTT service providers, like Netflix or Snapchat. While it’s not yet complete, it’s easy to see how the cloud will soon be the source of all consumer applications, including the computer and storage needs required to interact with these applications.
When broadband connectivity is slow, it affects the OTT service delivery. Customers frequently take out their frustration on the application rather than the connectivity - a lose-lose scenario. For OTT providers, their customer has a bad experience and, ultimately, if that continues they’re likely to return to a more traditional service: customer satisfaction and retention depend largely on connectivity. For Millennials and Generation Z, brand loyalty barely exists as a concept, and their propensity to churn is greater than any other generation.
The network service and the OTT service are inextricably linked, but they’re seen separately, not only within the industry but also by the end user. To date, all monetisation has been end-user focussed, which, to some extent, has put network and OTT service in competition with one another; at least it’s given them little incentive to work together to provide a better overall service.
In the past, some network service providers sought to block OTT services such as Skype or Netflix, which necessitated the introduction of net neutrality rules. As the capabilities of networks have evolved to permit much more rapid classification of traffic types out at the edge of the network, the capability to offer an SLA to a particular traffic type or flow has emerged. With net neutrality rules, operators traditionally felt unable to interfere in any way with traffic traversing their networks; however, recent guidance emerging at EU commission level is providing updated clarifications, which clearly permit the ability for an operator to provide SLA guarantees to different traffic types, and to monetise this capability.
However, despite the assertions from the EU Commission, there remains further work to be done at the national regulatory level, where some regulators must still be convinced that the inability of network operators to block or impede certain traffic types should not automatically translate into the inability to prioritise certain traffic types and to monetise SLAs. It is perfectly possible to offer SLAs, which is what cloud service providers desire, and enterprise customers’ demand, without impeding on best effort applications traversing the network. Prudent capacity planning, coupled with the ease with which disaggregated SDN controlled access platforms can be upgraded can ensure that a win-win compromise can be executed.
Marrying for Money: the Next Evolution
This year, there has been broader communication at EU Commission level - which is also filtering down into the national regulatory and local Government levels - that while net neutrality rules were put in place for good reason, the potential to pose an obstacle to service innovation exists. Now, with the revised guidance, that the capability to provide for service innovation is there.
At the FTTH Conference in February, the EU Commission’s director of electronic communication networks and services, Anthony Whelan, indicated that it was addressing the concern around the preventative effects of net neutrality rules, in order for service providers to apply higher QoS (quality of service) ratings to certain traffic flows. He said they want to protect against the negative discrimination of OTT services, but not at the expense of service providers’ ability to expedite new and improved services.
Furthermore, he said service providers now don’t need to come to the Commission on a case-by-case basis to seek approval on what they’re allowed to expedite. Rather, if providers are in breach (i.e. negatively discriminating against other traffic flows), they’ll have to answer to the Commission, but over and above that, they’ll be allowed to apply a higher QoS as they deem fit for different traffic flows.
A Joining of Forces
A shift in policy and regulation coupled with an evolution in SDN network capability, creates a new paradigm for the industry. Network service providers have been defending against an increasing push towards ‘dumb pipe’ status, but with the opportunity to enter into more co-operative, streamlined business deals with OTT providers, their relevance is elevated. Without monetary or regulatory obstacles, the combined strength of the network as a platform and OTT innovation will seek to push new boundaries in terms of truly providing unprecedented, widespread connectivity in a way that really enables communities to engage with the world using innovative services that we cannot yet imagine.
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