Virtualising your network

Key players outline the coming trends on SDN in the ME and Africa
Alcatel Lucent, Brocade, Ciena, Cisco, Du, Huawei, Nokia Networks, Ovum, Vodafone Qatar


Software Defined Networks (SDN) have already been deployed in Europe and Asia-Pacific. In the MEA region, SDN is still a challenge. Vendors are facing problems when introducing the network to operators, while these operators are still learning about the importance of virtualising their networks. CommsMEA asks some of the key players in the sector to outline the coming trends on SDN in the Middle East and Africa region.

CommsMEA: The challenge facing resellers and solution providers in the region is in educating customers about SDN, according to some vendors. How can this challenge be addressed?

Mavrakis: Operators have to be able to adapt their network to users’ demands. Slow services should be much quicker as well. The issue is that operators need to spend a lot of money to invest on SDN. Operators in the MEA region are not ready yet to invest in this concept. As far as I know, there is not much activity regarding Software Defined Network and virtualisation.

Sullivan: SDN with its programmability paradigm expands the heterogeneity of use cases and deployment modes – each customer will have specific programs to best fit their needs from the network. In other words, with SDN, customers want custom network behaviours.

Sakhnini: What the channel needs to do is to understand the reality of the situation and relate it to the actual requirements of their customers. For the Middle East, the next two years offer a window of trial/pilot and proof of concept (POC). This is the period when partners must identify “high value-high reward” areas of the customer’s businesses where SDN may solve actual business problems or drive new business opportunities. Given the time frame, channel organisations can make great headway in preparing for the inevitable shift towards SDN and similar and related solutions. Nurturing and developing the right skill sets during these years will allow the partner to rapidly gain market share in this emerging field and guarantee its position as a ‘trusted advisor’ and as a solutions provider.

Vela: Operators have a strong opinion about SDN and look to deploy SDN within the next three to five years as a general trend. The opinions, needs and motivation within operators may vary depending on goals that are expected to be achieved, either in operations or marketing segment. Operators have difficulties to quantify the exact impact of SDN on network costs, standardisation and security aspects of virtualisation.

Al Balooshi: SDN as a concept needs to be clearly understood in the industry. As of today even the vendors are not clear on what SDN is or how SDN will look like once it is implemented. SDN is a tool that can be leveraged in order to create network virtualisation. SDN is a tool or a technique that can be used in the creation of virtualised networks and in satisfying the definition of network virtualisation.

CommsMEA: While SDN is not a replacement of the physical infrastructure, it still requires a level of physical intrastructure. What benefits does this bring to operators? How much does SDN reduce the required infrastructure for operators?

Vela: The benefit of SDN deployment is coming from its flexible topology. Increase of throughput will generate new services around personalised data and these services will bring new distinguish patterns of subscriber’s behaviour and the traffic that those services generate. SDN will enable operators to adjust dynamically not only the capacity of their network, but also the structure and topology of the new requirement. Therefore, the benefit will come from more intelligent utilisation of network capacity, it will increase network resource utilisation and bring savings in further investment in equipment. Also, decoupling of infrastructure from services will bring large cost savings by extending hardware life-cycles.

Al Balooshi: SDN requires physical infrastructure but again here there are different schools of thought depending on the vendor i.e. optical vendors are looking at a centralised model for the control plane whereas routing vendors are looking at a semi-distributed approach for the control plane. Depending on which approach a service provider goes with cost will be impacted.

CommsMEA: SDN, as with all forms of virtualisation, is sensitive to time lag, latency and downtime. How can these problems be solved?

Vela: Operators will face latency issue more in virtualised network than in bare metal setup. However, this would be a reasonable trade off because virtualisation would bring other advantages that would result in better performance and customer experience that outweighs this latency drawback through optimised routing, traffic steering, higher network utilisation and greater network agility. Vendors would continue minimisimg the negative impact of latency.

Tomalin: As SDN paves the way for more flexible network architecture it actually offers the potential to reshape the network by providing a more granular, and service-oriented means of managing these vulnerabilities, as well as those brought on by mobility and BYOD, and the rapid expansion of cloud and virtualisation services. SDN leverages the flow-based paradigm, allowing for user-level policies to be enforced no matter where users physically access the network. This means that vulnerable or sensitive flows can be rapidly assessed and prioritised to be redirected if needed.

Sakhnini: SDN deployments will be a success by having a resilient, flat, Ethernet fabric-based underlying networking infrastructure as opposed to a three-tier, legacy affair, with redundancy and resilience issues.

Sullivan: SDN is not a battle between hardware and software. We believe customers will derive the greatest value from tightly integrating emerging software approaches with the underlying physical infrastructure.

CommsMEA: What challenges does SDN bring to the region and to operators?

Sakhnini: The biggest limitation of SDN is that it currently does not leverage existing L2/3 network equipment. Other challenges in deploying SDN include questions like ‘how to design switches and APIs that offer greater flexibility without compromising performance’; how to design a software platform for the control and management of software defined networks; how to design new applications that capitalise on the programmability of the network; how to lower the barrier to creating, testing, and evaluating new applications; how to transition an existing network to SDN, and how a software defined network can interoperate with existing protocols and devices.

Al Balooshi: SDN segregates control plane from forwarding plane, centralising the control plane will always have this disadvantage. It’s still not clear what benefits will SDN bring, so it is too early to discuss challenges. One obvious issue will be organisation structure and boundaries between different teams. SDN will bring intelligence to the Ethernet services where centralising the control layer will give operators flexibility to change the network service instantly.

In terms of deployment, it might be an early stage to adopt it network-wide but it can be contained in a defined DC area as still the technology is under evolution and not standardised across vendors. However we believe within the coming years SDN will have a major role in the Ethernet service deployment.

Vela: Although perceived as a revolutionary technology feature that brings complexity as its biggest challenge, I believe that SDN deployment will create disruptive movement in revenue generation streams. While in conventional infrastructure services are deployed in weeks or months and it is hard to create competitive advantage, in an SDN environment time to market for a new service will be significantly reduced and the operator’s offering will be subject to requests for high creativity and agility. The most obvious answer, complexity will be efficiently addressed through optimisation and automation tools that will follow the development of the solution.

Tilley: I think at this stage in the Middle East and Africa region, the one challenge is education. SDN is a new technology and needs engineers (especially in telecom and operators) to also understand virtualisation, IT and networking to provide the right level of services. This means that they now need to retrain and expand their skills sets.

CommsMEA: What benefits does SDN bring to operators in the MEA region?

Al Balooshi: End-to-end service delivery, service fulfilment, time to market all these should reduce with SDN. Of course operational expenditure savings are also to be considered.

Vela: Operators will see immediate savings as result of optimised resource utilisation, infrastructure cost reduction, supply chain disruption and higher reliability of the service delivery, however long-term benefits will come with enabling faster innovation and alignment of marketing departments with possibilities of new technologies. This will bring relations between operators and OTT players into a new dimension as both will enjoy benefits of agile environment. Also the impact of service reliability will influence customer loyalty which is the key success element in a saturated market.

Reyad: SDN, as a form of virtualisation, is something we have in our plans, and we have a clear direction to adopt virtualisation for any new offering. The reasons why we at Vodafone Qatar see this as beneficial are many, but to name a few: service provisioning speed, network flexibility, lower operating expenses and others.

En: Virtualisation of the network provides high availability for critical applications, and streamlines application deployment and migrations. SDN simplify IT operations and allow IT organisations to respond faster to business demands.

CommsMEA: Which niche sectors will see the most opportunities in the Middle East & Africa region for SDN deployments?

Tomalin: SDN will bring opportunities for a variety of sectors, service providers, colocation data centre operators, and enterprises. This is largely because service providers are looking for ways to innovate and differentiate their service offerings in the increasingly dynamic environment. By leveraging virtualisation technology, they can transform their networks into on-demand service, content, and application delivery platforms, for consumers, enterprises, and cloud provider customers globally.

CommsMEA: How mature is the region in terms of developing SDN?

Sakhnini: SDN is still at a conceptual stage in this region. The growth in the SDN market will be driven by companies working towards solving existing problems with networks — security, robustness and manageability and by innovating new revenue generating services on network infrastructures. Ultimately, the goal is to provide a highly flexible cloud-optimised network solution that is scalable within the cloud. In our view, this “new” network will be powered by fabric-based architectures, which provide the any-to-any connectivity critical to realising the full benefits of SDN. These include network virtualisation, programmatic control of the infrastructure, automation and dynamic configuration, on-demand service insertion and pay-per-use, all through standards-based software orchestration tools. Cloud service deployment will be faster, data centre management will be simpler and network operation will be easier.

Tilley: The Middle East is still getting to grips with the technology and beginning to understand its benefits. It is not as mature as North America or Western Europe, partly because of size and number of data centres available across the region are not on the same scale.

But they are making the investments to retrain and understand the technology and be able to deploy as soon as the infrastructure demands it.

Reyad: We feel that the MEA region still has a way to go before developing a mature infrastructure for SDN and this is because service providers are still exploring ways for moving towards this direction, in order to improve.

En: At the present time, SDN is gradually moving towards large-scale commercialisation. The major driving forces behind this development are customer demands for the reconstruction or modernisation of existing networks. Customers are faced by multiple challenges in existing networks, such as isolation between the network and the service system, complex operation and maintenance (O&M) and a lack of quality controls.

Vela: Major global operators that consider themselves as advanced in implementation of SDN expect to launch core network services in the next two to three years, so we can expect that the key regional markets will see a similar time frame. This may vary from market to market and we see some operators already experiencing benefits from their data centres.

Al Balooshi: SDN is still in early stages across the world not only in the region. There is no clear view for SDN. Within a confined network setup i.e. Data centres, SDN is being deployed and is somewhat mature.

CommsMEA: What are the trends in the MEA region when deploying SDN?

Mavrakis: In the Middle East, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait might be the regions that will deploy SDN. In Africa, perhaps South Africa.

Sakhnini: Early adopters of SDN are currently investigating a wide range of applications and use cases that include network virtualisation, large-scale data centres infrastructure management, traffic engineering, and Wide Area Network (WAN) flow management.

Reyad: The trend is clear, SDN and virtualisation in general are gaining traction due to the benefits we mentioned earlier.

En: Software-defined solutions certainly hold a lot of promise offering an automated, dynamic infrastructure, business-aligned SLAs, simpler operations and lower costs.

Vela: Depending on the market position and technology level of operator, we noticed that they streamline their vision about SDN around three strategies: optimisation to perform current business in a more efficient and effective way; innovation to improve customer value through creation of new revenue streams; and disruption to develop radically different value propositions. Currently most of the operators are in the phase of considering deployment of SDN to principles to their data centres, a phase to be followed by continuous improvement in virtualisation and orchestration. The SDN concept offers a variety of tactical approaches and we will definitely see them all in MEA: from partnering with IT providers or between operators itself to operator-led solutions that challenge established cloud vendors, from end-to-end solutions for enterprise users to differentiated cloud services. The story of SDN is yet to be written: as it is intended to enable operators to make dynamic response to social changes, the concept itself must keep the ability to adapt to new requirements.

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