State of the Industry: SDN/NFV and 5G in North America

Posted by Mae Kowalke on Wednesday, September 16, 2015 with No comments

How do North American network operators/carriers stack up against their international counterparts when it comes to adopting software-defined networking (SDN)/network functions virtualization (NFV), and the migration to 5G? Accedian VP of Marketing Scott Sumner dives into these inter-related topics below with a look at the current state of the industry as it relates to virtualization and next-generation networks.

How far off is North America from starting the migration to 5G, compared with other markets internationally? 

American mobile network operators (MNOs) are roughly 18-24 months behind (at the leading edge). This is due to much larger geography, no major revenue incentive to move faster (the market is price driven, and quite incremental), the complexity of managing SDN over a largely wholesale-based backhaul infrastructure, and mostly, cultural barriers internal to the operators. Most, however, have a plan forming or in action that is similar to what we see in Asia. Latin American operators are typically following Telefonica's progress towards SDN and NFV, but are slower to monetize LTE investments, so may be years behind North America in terms of 5G.

What can operators in North America can learn from their Asia-Pacific cousins, particularly around adopting and incorporating SDN/NFV into their networks?

Several major trends are at play: 

  1. SDN and NFV has been very successful in deployments that integrate network visibility and analytics as a core strategy from the onset, and has failed in early trials when this integration was not applied.
  2. SDN and NFV and hybrid multi-vendor networks complicate maintaining or establishing QoS or gaining network-wide visibility.
  3. The vast increase in the number of network endpoints--both for clients and network functions--and the complex, dynamic nature of traffic from an increasing number of applications (including M2M, VoLTE, 4k streaming, etc.) require that any solutions employed for monitoring, analytics, or control must be virtualized from the perspectives of cost, deployment, and agility.
  4. Monitoring tools that in the past were used primarily for troubleshooting now form a real-time instrumentation layer that acts as the nervous system for a network--linking visibility to control, customer experience, and ultimately revenue as QoE becomes the most important differentiator between operators.
How advanced are North American operators in their SDN/NFV deployment plans?

Some leading operators (such as CenturyLink and AT&T) are quite far along, in terms of user-controlled VPNaaS (virtual private network as a service). NFV and SDN have been applied primarily in areas that realize high ROI, and allow services to be differentiated from the customer experience or product offering standpoint. There are many examples of in-progress initiatives that will launch this year and early in 2016, by both Tier 1 carriers and wholesale providers moving into small cells as a service. 

What are the main challenges facing North American operators around network performance and QoS for the end-user? 

Over the next five years, networks will become crowded with Internet of Things (IoT), media streaming, and so many diverse applications with competing network demands (see spider graph below); the result is that human-initiated traffic will reduce to less than 30% of network usage. But, machine traffic cannot be allowed to destabilize the QoS of existing applications like VoLTE; instead, it must permit new revenue growth for MNOs. 

Different types of applications place (often) conflicting demands on the network

Establishing multi-service QoS over multi-vendor, hybrid SDN/NFV networks in the age of IoT will be a difficult chasm to cross. Fully virtualized instrumentation--now moving into production networks in over 35 countries--brings a per-user, per-session, per-network slice real-time view of performance to operations teams and controllers, effectively solving this problem in a radically less expensive manner. 

What’s causing QoS challenges faced by operators?

There are multiple causes:

  1. Sheer volume of network traffic
  2. Traffic types (e.g. mobile video, M2M/IoT signaling)
  3. Traffic patterns (e.g. bottlenecks in particular parts of the network, at certain times of day)
Within five years, networks will connect 100x more devices, and handle 1000x more traffic. Networks are also becoming more dense (e.g. small cells, femtocells), integrating more types of access (Carrier Wi-Fi, Unlicensed LTE, etc.), and supporting more dynamic usage patterns and application diversity.

Managing all these factors together is getting beyond the scope of human control, necessitating the transition to partially, or fully automated networks that can self-optimize at all layers to maintain optimal, context-based customer experience. There is an important relationship between visibility, control and performance emerging, one that SDN can unify and apply to create a dynamic, performance-aware network.

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