SDN and NFV are hot. In fact, SDN is so hot that Gartner recently declared that it had in 2015 officially reached the “trough of disillusionment” on its way to the “slope of enlightenment” and the “plateau of productivity.” DevOps is another hot term, with so much interest in understanding it that it inspired Chef’s CTO to recently declare that it defies definitions but that true practitioners “know devops when [they] see it.”
Just to be sure we’re all clear on what we’re talking about, let’s define terms.
SDN and NFV
SDN (software-defined networking) is about making networks programmable by centralizing the control of how traffic transits the network. One or more controllers set the traffic flow policies that are pushed down to individual switches. There are two main types of SDN architectures – underlay and overlay.
Underlay SDN architectures replace the distributed control plane functionality in all the switches with a centralized SDN control framework paired with a communication protocol such as OpenFlow. Overlay SDN architectures focus on the switches at the edge of the network, such as the virtual switches running on data center servers. These edge switches report to a centralized controller and set up tunnels to other edge switches so that all the switches and routers in the core of the network can continue working in traditional mode.
NFV (network functions virtualization) is where network functions such as firewalls, load balancers, and customer premises gateways that have always been delivered in hardware appliances are instead delivered on virtual machines.
DevOps is not a technology. It is more of a cultural movement. Unlike ITIL, which is a highly formalized set of operational processes and practices, or Agile Software Development, which has been codified in a manifesto, DevOps has not been clearly delineated.
The idea of DevOps starts with a culture of highly productive collaboration between software Developers and IT Operations personnel. It continues by taking agile development methodologies and applying them in a highly automated way from development through to operational deployment of the software. By overcoming traditional silos, DevOps is meant to apply agile, fast-feedback notions to the whole application lifecycle.
The OTT Challenge
For service providers, SDN, NFV, and DevOps are important to service providers that aren’t just looking to change their network architectures, but the whole way they innovate and bring services to market. Over-the-Top (OTT) service providers like Skype, Google, Apple, WhatsApp, etc., are providing services that are similar or identical to the service providers’ bread and butter.
These services used to be an annoyance, but they’ve become an existential threat, and, what’s more, these OTTs are not bogged down by traditional ways of doing business. Emboldened by huge infusions of capital, armed with the newest infrastructure and agile business methods, they are eating service providers’ lunch.
So, for service providers, evolving their networks with SDN and NFV isn’t good enough anymore. They need to become more like these OTT competitors, which can put out literally dozens of software updates per day based on “continuous deployment” practices. That’s in contrast to the typical 18-month service provider release cycle.
Putting It All Together
Together, SDN and NFV create a network that offers centralized programmability via SDN, plus a way to rapidly deploy new functionality as pure software via NFV. That’s a network that can morph rapidly to meet new customer requirements and market opportunities. Hello, business agility! But it’s only half of the issue. If it still takes 18 months to innovate and release new services and features, service providers are in danger.
This is why service providers need to adopt DevOps as a new way of innovating and operating. With a DevOps practice rapidly leveraging a newly programmable and malleable network, service providers can gain a much better chance of retaining profits and investor favor, in order to continue fighting another day (or decade).
Ideally, the combination of DevOps and SDN/NFV doesn’t just help service providers get relatively faster but helps them achieve a “big bang” transformation – kind of like going from wheeled to maglev trains. That’s why you’ll see forward-thinking service providers articulate SDN/NFV and DevOps, not as separate processes, but as highly correlated. Of course, some argue that service providers operate less like current, conventional trains than like ancient, coal-burning trains, making the transformation that much more daunting.
The jury may be out on whether or not service providers can make such a big leap into the future. However, due to ever-growing competitive pressures, it’s a leap service providers know they need to attempt.