Networking in the cloud - coming to you sometime soon

Software Defined Networks are being described as cloud computing for networks. The promise is SDN will shake up the telecoms world and usher in new and faster services. The reality is more complicated, Johanna Egar finds

It’s been called cloud computing for networks, with all the benefits that implies. But creating Software Defined Networks (SDNs) isn’t easy. This task involves turning a large chunk of network hardware – the control management or brain part – of telecoms switches into software, to centralise control.

Doing this means you can use cheaper common hardware. This then gets told what to do by the brain, says Kurt Rodgers, Chorus’ network strategy manager, who is grappling with this technical challenge.

He says: “Networking is like a distributed brain with every switch and router making its own decision. SDN is a trend moving back in the other direction, where you’ve got cheaper devices that are centrally controlled.”

By taking the control management functions out of the hardware and turning them into software, telecoms networks become more flexible and easier to manage.

Cloud services use a similar virtualisation process. It sees software separate physical infrastructures, isolate operating systems and applications from the underlying hardware, and creating copies. These can then be hosted independently and so make cloud computing possible. A similar process is underway with telecoms networks. It is sometimes called Network Function Virtualisation (NFV).

This process is only starting with telecoms; there are still limitations. For instance, it’s not easy to turn the network routers needed to run a telecoms network into cheap, dumb hardware. Their control functions may move to the network, but network performance requirements keep climbing. This means cheap, off-the-shelf hardware might not be able to perform well enough. Routers are not servers, which are easier to commoditise.

Although centralising control this way should lower operating costs, this is still not proven.

“You can streamline your operational processes and automate – which is the reason IT moved to the cloud – but it’s still early days with telecommunications,” says Chorus’ Rodgers, striking a cautious note.

Rodgers is more positive about SDN helping telcos and others launch and deliver new services faster. Electricity and broadcast companies, indeed any company with a large network, may also get into the game. So a big industry shake up could be coming.

 

SDN and fibre - a dream team?

The SDN-fibre ideal is that if you have a broadband fibre connection and your telecoms provider has an SDN network you should be able – with the click of a website button – to add, say, more bandwidth, a new television service or move from a high to a low data plan. In fact, make any change to your telecoms service you want in an instant.

“Buying and interacting with your telco could become like interacting with Netflix or Amazon Web Services, or Google. That should be the goal,” says Rodgers.

“SDN isn’t important in itself. What’s important is being able to have a digital relationship with customers that’s easier, and cuts costs and improves customer experience,” he says.

The road promises to be a rocky one though. Investing in SDN isn’t cheap, and, although telcos are doing this in new areas, they have a lot of sunk costs. This will make them reluctant to spend on SDN in other areas before an asset comes to end of its life-cycle. This could take as long as five to seven years.

Telcos may get a push from outsiders judging by what’s happening elsewhere. Despite the limits imposed, by spectrum, for example, enterprising newcomers can already do a lot by bolting together fibre, unlicensed spectrum, computing power and Wi-Fi hotspots. This is exactly what US’ Republic Wireless is doing, to provide cheap mobile connectivity. And it’s not the only one.

Republic Wireless may have to use cellular towers if no hotspots are available. Yet its example shows what is already possible. Telecommunications is set to face the kind of disruptive challenge the IT industry did some time ago. With the structural separation of our telecoms industry combined with the roll out of Ultra Fast Broadband, you don’t need to be a telco now to put SDN smarts on the end of a fibre connection and devise a new service.

A blurring is going on between networks and IT that could see integrators and companies with large networks jump into the telecoms pool.

“It’s converging, everyone is doing things digitally, over IP, using internet technology, and converging in the same direction,” says Rodgers. “At the end of the day, it is all just software over fibre.

“The two things of value in the telecoms industry are the physical structure, which gives you physical connectivity, and the service, which is basically software. SDN might mean a closer relationship between those who can deliver value to the customer and those who have the delivery structure.”