Speed and efficiency are critical in the telecom industry. SDN and NFV, if fully realized, can provide the benefits that carriers are seeking with regard to provisioning services in a faster and more efficient manner. However, this is only one half of the formula for success. The key questions that need to be asked include: What will trigger changes to service and network configurations? When will the capabilities of SDN and NFV be called into action? And for what purpose?
The other half of the formula for success lies in the answer to these questions. The full benefits of SDN and NFV cannot be realized unless these questions are understood and answered. While these questions might seem confusing for many readers with telecom experience. The answer for many would seem obvious; telecom carriers will plan and create services and then use SDN and NFV to provision them.
The telecom industry is experiencing a profound reset in its thinking and that has to be taken into consideration. This reset challenges deeply held beliefs on the role of carriers as service providers. The bottom line is that carriers are no longer in control of the services that are offered on their networks.
The formerly obvious answer is no longer so obvious in light of this new reality.
The challenge that carriers are facing is not only provisioning services, but also adapting to the behavior of subscribers consuming the carriers’ and other providers’ services.
Increased Bandwidth Consumption
Many carriers have a vision of expanding beyond the basic service offering of Internet connectivity. They hope to provide more advanced services that can potentially compete with other content providers, often termed “over-the-top” (OTT) providers. These OTT providers are increasingly driving mobile data growth.
Video traffic was 53 percent of mobile traffic in 2013 and will be over two-thirds by 2018, according to the Cisco VNI Index released in February 2014. Sandvine reports in the Global Internet Phenomena Report 2H2013 that Netflix and YouTube now account for more than 50 percent of Internet traffic on fixed networks in North America.
By allowing services to be offered over the Internet, whether they are cloud services or apps for mobile devices, a wealth of innovation has been enabled. However, the reality is that carriers will be, at best, one of a multitude of service providers running over the network. And requests for those services are only increasing.
Rapid adaptation is a key capability in need here. SDN and NFV are one half of the formula that enables fast re-provisioning. Another is real-time visibility into what is happening in the network.
Real-time Visibility and Insights
The network can deliver valuable information, provided the information is timely.
By monitoring what is happening in real time, it is possible to see what services are being used, by whom, and how much bandwidth they are consuming. The technology to do this exists today and operates at speeds up to 40 Gbps.
Capturing this information to disk in real time is also incredibly valuable. It allows a profile to be developed of normal network behavior over a given period of time. This profile can be used to establish thresholds or other triggers for detecting deteriorations in performance and quality, radical changes in consumption patterns or other anomalies.
It is at least possible to determine if something out of the ordinary has occurred by comparing real-time data on what is happening with the expected behavior established in the profile. While this does not provide a prediction on data consumption, it does provide a powerful capability to adapt to a change in real time.
Monitoring Usage for Timely Reactions
It is possible to react to unexpected situations by monitoring network and service usage in real time and detecting anomalies. This is the front end to the management of SDN and NFV services. It provides the intelligence for SDN controllers and NFV management to act. This can be to reroute traffic, increase bandwidth in a certain area, change service parameters or even offer a new service or upgrade.
There are other benefits to this approach. The real-time information on network and service utilization provides insight into quality of experience (QoE). This is crucial for services offered by carriers, but is also a service that can be sold to content providers utilizing the carrier network, such as OTT providers. A similar service can be offered for security, as the approach outlined above can detect anomalies that can be correlated with information from security appliances to determine if an attack is underway. The ability to offer better quality and more secure connections should be attractive to OTT service providers and their subscribers.
Pros and Cons
This aspect of real-time monitoring should already be solved in the SDN switches or the hypervisor, some might say. For low speed networks, this will be possible. The challenge is implementing this capability in high-speed networks operating at 1, 10, or even 100 Gb/s.
To analyze real-time data for management, test, security and optimization of networks and services, carriers can choose from a wide variety of appliances. These are stand-alone, physical devices with extreme processing requirements.
Though this kind of functionality was originally available in switches and routers, it was determined that separate dedicated appliances were a better solution because processing requirements were too large for routers and switches to accommodate. With the move to COTS hardware envisioned in SDN and NFV, it is hard to see that these requirements have diminished, especially as the volume, variety and velocity of data is increasing.
Others will point out that appliances can now be virtualized and run on virtual machines. This again is true for lower bandwidth applications, but at higher speeds, the virtual appliance will require significant processing resources that can threaten to consume CPU cycles that should be used by the other virtual clients the virtual appliance is supposed to be monitoring. This would seem to be counter-productive.
For this reason, physical appliances that can analyze large amounts of data in real time will remain in demand. To work in a virtualized environment, they will need to be virtualization-aware with the capability to distinguish virtual LANs. With these key devices in place, the real-time insight into how the network and services are performing can be assured.
Optimizing to Innovate
As demands on telecom carriers change and grow, the technology for implementing real-time insight already exists and is ready to be deployed. Applying this technology to SDN and NFV management is not a technical hurdle, but more of a conceptual step. It involves a rethink of the role of carriers and accepting that there is no longer control over what services are being consumed on the network. This involves an acceptance that rather than being the sole cradle-to-grave provider of all communication service needs, a modern carrier needs to partner with a growing ecosystem of OTT players with a focus on maintaining customer satisfaction. In other words, ensuring that subscribers are getting what they want, the way they want it.
Carriers are no longer in control of the traffic running on their networks. The solution lies in optimizing resource usage and accelerating the deployment of new and innovative services. Agility and flexibility are essential, but in order to fully adapt to this data-deluged world, real-time capability must be part of the mix. Only by enabling real-time insight into what is happening in the network and how services are performing will the true benefits of SDN and NFV be realized.
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