For years, software-defined networking and network functions virtualization have both been long on theoretical promise but short on real-world results. Underscoring this gap, research firm IHS has estimated that in 2015, only about 20 percent of cloud and communications service providers and 6 percent of enterprises had actually deployed SDN.
However, those numbers are expected to rise to 60 and 23 percent in 2016, respectively. Such optimism about the prospects of SDN and NFV in the new year are widespread. What's behind this attitude, and is it justified based on what's going on right now with carriers and IT organizations?
SDN and NFV as two members of a revolutionary trio
Let's back up for a minute. Instead of viewing them in isolation, it is more instructive to understand SDN and NFV as part of a trio of groundbreaking models for building services, with cloud computing as the third member. Of the three, cloud has made the deepest inroads with both service providers and enterprises.
Public cloud platforms such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure are the gold standards for automated self-service access to, and consumption of, infrastructure. Their popularity has had two important effects:
Service providers have been motivated to build carrier clouds that can deliver on-demand services to their customers as part of a private or hybrid cloud. These solutions may offer excellent speed and reliability – thanks to inherent carrier advantages such as built-out fiber lines and options for IP networking or MPLS – that would be harder (or at least more expensive) to obtain over the public internet or a typical cloud provider.
Meanwhile, enterprises are consuming a growing number of cloud services. For example, the 2015 RightScale State of the Cloud Report found that approximately 82 percent of them had a hybrid cloud strategy in place. Some have been skeptical of turning to carriers for cloud services since they have until relatively recently been predominantly focused on voice instead of data. But the tide may be shifting as service providers pursue SDN and NFV to support their cloud pushes.
Indeed, these two models have a lot of potential to revolutionize how carriers deliver services and how enterprises consume them. The possible benefits run the gamut from lower CAPEX and OPEX to greater flexibility in adding capacity and weaving in interoperable software and hardware compared with legacy practices.
"NFV principles could give operators a lower total cost of ownership for cloud infrastructure, even discounting economies of scale," explained Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp., in a December 2015 post for TechTarget. "They could improve resiliency, speed new service introduction and attract software partners looking to offer software as a service. Operators are known for their historic tolerance for low ROI, and with the proper support from NFV, they could be credible cloud players. If NFV succeeds, carrier cloud succeeds."
High hopes for SDN and NFV in 2016
The optimism about SDN and NFV heading into 2016 may stem in part from eagerness to capitalize on this carrier cloud opportunity. However, there is also real progress in areas such as API refinements and open standards development.
"Real progress is being made in open APIs and standards."
More specifically, there is growing collaboration between the Open Networking Foundation (which is behind OpenFlow) and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute. The Open Platform for NFV also has many carriers and equipment vendors already on board.
Beyond that, there have been successful deployments such as Big Switch Networks providing the SDN portion of Verizon's new OpenStack cloud. The launch was completed in April 2016 across five data centers.
The expectations for rapid growth in SDN and NFV adoption by IHS and others are supported by the facts on the ground. Carriers might never become cloud providers first and foremost, but with successful implementation of SDN and NFV, they can make it a vital part of their agile businesses.
The takeaway: Adoption of SDN and NFV is expected to surge in 2016 as service providers continue building carrier clouds and enterprises consume more cloud services than ever before. The rapid progress in open APIs and standards should support this fundamental shift in how services are delivered and consumed.
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