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NFV & SDN: Thinking about the bigger picture

Written by Alan Carlton, VP, InterDigital Europe

Twitter - @InterDigitalCom

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Network Function Virtualization (NFV) and Software-Defined Networking (SDN) have been industry talking points for some time. Originally conceived to accelerate the deployment of new services and to address what was then “ossification” of the internet, it might be argued that NFV and SDN’s original vision has stalled in this ambition. Driven by cost-based arguments around CAPEX and OPEX reduction, the technologies so far have not quite achieved the full potential of their original premise.

But today, the unprecedented flexibility needs being presented by 5G are calling for the application of NFV and SDN that extend beyond cost-based arguments which have come to form the basis of their very existence and spur them on towards delivering network disruption and transformation.

Back to basics

While SDN and NFV have come to form the basis of most Operators’ Networking Strategy, there is so much more we can do with these technologies to enable the transformation of today’s networks. This is especially important if we are to see the success of 5G; SDN and NFV must return to their original proposition of enabling innovation and network transformation.

Future 5G environments will see virtualisation touch every element in the system, spanning services, core, backhaul, fronthaul and radio access. Operators must, therefore, broaden their attention from only cost justifications for these technologies to exploring the new services and experiences that these technologies and, in turn, 5G can enable - many of which are yet to be explored.

The path ahead

The role of NFV and SDN in the future will be much broader. Operators have difficult challenges ahead in supporting the unprecedented flexibility requirements of 5G, and these technologies will provide the key tools that will allow them to meet these challenges. More than this, however, if we do it right these technologies will also enable whole new service revenue streams as well.

Two emerging examples that showcase how the application of NFV and SDN can bring about transformational network change to deliver new services and enhance delivery are in the areas of network routing and fronthaul & backhaul.

Together, NFV and SDN enable the programmable network. It is this capability that will allow us to revisit some of our basic assumptions about how network routing will work in the future.

Information Centric Networking (ICN) is one such new routing paradigm that may be enabled by these technologies. ICN is a promising technology that is perfect for the emerging distributed, edge computing environment that modern networks are evolving towards. The deployment of ICN would be almost impossible without the network virtualization enablement provided by SDN and NFV. ICN will bring new benefits in overall network utilization but more than this given its natural synergies with Edge Computing it may also serve as a fundamental enabler in its own right to new capabilities here too. These new capabilities might include very fast dynamic web server creation deep in Operator networks. This may help to level the playing field for Operators with OTT players who will certainly covet these facilities as next generation low latency services start to emerge.

A second example in which SDN/NFV can transform networks is in the area of fronthaul and backhaul. Fronthaul and backhaul have evolved over the years on very different trajectories, each using different transport technologies and protocols. This evolution has resulted in the appearance of two heterogeneous technology silos. While this approach has worked acceptably in previous generations, with the advent of 5G and the need for more flexible and integrated frameworks it is now commonly accepted that a new “Crosshaul” architecture is required. This architecture will only be possible through the application of SDN/NFV technologies. These technologies will also enable these new fronthaul and backhaul assets to be offered as “Crosshaul as a Service”, again creating new revenue possibilities for Operators.

Only through these types of applications of SDN and NFV will operators be successful in the roll out of 5G. What’s more, the ability to successfully deploy and monetise new services will also be seriously compromised if operators do not see SDN and NFV as key to bringing these types of new opportunities to life and monetization.

A new lease of life

Cost-based arguments to support a technology are not a bad thing, and it should not be inferred that cost has been a totally unjustified driver for these technologies. But both NFV and SDN have far more potential than financial justifications only and recognising this is essential if operators are to deliver on the many promises and expectations of subscribers today and tomorrow.
Virtualisation has evolved and is evolving, but, before we venture any further, it’s essential that service providers go back to the fundamentals of what NFV and SDN can really offer: disruption and innovation.


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