When SDN and NFV were in their formative, conceptual stages operators and vendors focused mainly on transport and routing implementations. But as SDN and NFV evolved from concept to reality, the fixed access portion of networks – both telco and cable – are also beginning to reap the benefits of SDN and virtualization. Hence, the development of software-defined access (SDA) solutions and propositions by fixed access systems vendors ranges from A to Z (Adtran to ZTE in this case).
Calix Spurs SDA Leadership
Calix first launched its Access eXtensible Operating System (AXOS) SDA platform in October 2015, ahead of all rivals (with the possible exception of Slovenian vendor Iskratel, which arguably staked its “first” claim by debuting an SDN solution for access network applications back in 2010). Calix has radically transformed itself in its efforts to target the SDA market. Its CEO Carl Russo has stated repeatedly, “we are a software company now,” and over the past two years Calix has hired a phalanx of IBM software professionals, ranging from marketing executives to sales leaders to engineers.
Calix’s overwhelming, full-bore commitment to SDA enabled the vendor to garner one of the highest-profile SDA implementations by a Tier 1 operator, Verizon, which is leveraging Calix AXOS gear in its Tampa, Fla. field trial of NG-PON2 technology. Beyond Verizon, Calix has garnered dozens of commercial AXOS customer wins and implementations, upselling AXOS to many of its substantial legacy fixed access hardware customers in North America.
Adtran Breaks the Mold
Adtran was also a very early entrant into the SDA market with its Mosaic platform. Through Mosaic, Adtran broke out of its long-established reputation as a cautious, conservative follower on the technology R&D front. Over the course of its decades in the fixed networking space, Adtran was known for bringing technologies to market only when customer demand dictated.
This wise, relatively risk-averse strategy kept Adtran profitable and able to survive multiple telecom recessions and market consolidation that has dramatically reduced the number of vendors in this space. However, Adtran has clearly been motivated to scrap its legacy product development approach with the advent of SDA technology and the market opportunity presented by operator transitions to SDA.
Huawei’s ‘Cloudy, With a Chance of SDA’ Forecast
Both Calix and Adtran were undoubtedly well ahead of the more established, Tier 1 vendors with their respective debuts of SDA technology. Huawei first outlined its own SDN/NFV and proto-SDA proposition as part of the Cloud prefix for its various networking/product sectors (i.e., CloudFAN for fixed access networks, CloudRAN for radio access networks). However, Huawei has provided very little detail about the solution elements and capabilities — especially compared to Adtran, Calix, and even relatively new entrant Nokia. This is not unusual for Huawei, which has historically been cautious about providing key product and solution set details to anyone other than its target customers.
Nokia Takes a Multifaceted Approach
Nokia, on the other hand, debuted its software-defined access network (SDAN) and unified cable access propositions with a high-impact marketing initiative, launched last year during the fall trade show season. For maximum exposure, Nokia specifically timed its “Intelligent Access” vision debut to address both the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) Cable-Tec Expo event in September and the Broadband World Forum in October (the two most important fixed access events of the year). Calix and Adtran justifiably characterized Nokia’s SDA entry as late to market.
While Nokia was certainly behind Calix and Adtran, the vendor had a reasonable excuse: it needed extra time following its acquisition of Gainspeed to integrate the acquired virtual converged cable access platform (vCCAP) and distributed access architecture (DAA) technology with its own, overarching “Intelligent Access” SDAN proposition.
What About SDA in the Cable Market?
Nokia’s Gainspeed vCCAP and DAA solutions provide a good “crossover” point (i.e., from the telco to the cable side of the SDA market). Calix, Adtran, and other SDA propositions are designed to address both telco and cable environments. However, CableLabs certification and qualification requirements, and CableLabs’ corollary developing framework for SDA and virtualization, mean that cable operator-targeted SDA solutions must jump additional hurdles in order to meet the cable industry’s de-facto standardization regimen. As a result, cable SDA portfolios have been slower to materialize, though that is changing quickly.
As mentioned above, startup vendor Gainspeed was acquired by Nokia to address the evolving opportunity for virtual CCAP and DAA implementations in the cable market. Gainspeed effectively pioneered the virtual CCAP proposition; its initial marketing campaigns targeted the “Big Iron” cable head-end vendors (Arris, Cisco, and even relative newcomer Casa Systems).
Cable Head-End Vendors Going Virtual
Despite a slower virtualization path than telco-specific vendors, all three head-end vendors have had virtual CCAP solution elements on their product roadmaps for years, with Arris and Casa Systems launching virtual CCAP offerings – as part of their existing hardware-based CCAP roadmaps – over the last few years. Also worth mentioning is Harmonic — a long-time cable head-end systems vendor for EdgeQAM (video hardware), which developed its own virtual CCAP solution, CableOS, and has garnered its first commercial deployment earlier this year with Swedish cable operator Com Hem.
Cisco Goes Native…Cloud Native
Cisco, however, has taken a different path. Compared to chief rivals Arris and Casa, the long-time cable head-end market leader was slower to market with both its initial CCAP offering, the cBR-8, and its virtual CCAP solution. But Cisco’s tardiness may in fact pay off; while the Arris and Casa vCCAP offerings are part of their existing hardware-based CCAP solutions, Cisco recently launched its Cloud-Native Broadband Router platform, just prior to Europe’s largest, most relevant cable networking event, Anga Com. Cisco even characterizes the CNBR as “software designed to run on bare metal.”
SDA: Where Do We Go From Here?
- Vendor Market Traction: Given the difficulties of comparing and contrasting the various SDA portfolios and solutions available, the most important proof points for vendors will be customer deployments, SDA revenue generated, and related proof points.
- Telco-Centric Contenders: Calix, Adtran, Nokia, and Huawei must demonstrate why their specific SDA offerings are the better choice for operators. This boils down to differentiation, the more tangible the better.
- Cable Contenders: Head-end systems vendors Arris, Casa, and Cisco must defend against virtual CCAP contenders Harmonic and Nokia with both their existing CCAP solutions and their own respective virtual CCAP/DAA propositions.
- Potential Disruptors: As mentioned above, Iskratel announced an SDN solution for the access market in 2010, five years ahead of Calix et. al., but has been relatively quiet about SDA. On a completely different note, ZTE – a top three fixed access systems vendor – most certainly has an SDA offering in the works. Both vendors need to ramp up their SDA sales and marketing efforts in order to remain true contenders in this still-nascent but quickly-evolving market.
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