ANALYSIS: Can commodity hardware cut it in SDN world?

Of late there seems to be an SDN (software defined networks) related announcement every few days, as vendors get their ducks in a row to pitch the next evolution of technology to carriers at MWC. But the concept demands a change in mindset for the vendors as much as it does the operators.

Speaking at the launch of the company’s SoftCom SDN platform last week, Sanqi Li, CTO, carrier network business group at Huawei, waxed lyrical about the core virtualisation expectations of SDN, which will see network applications and services run on commodity hardware and software. As a maker of both network hardware and software, this approach will have an effect on Huawei’s business, but not a detrimental one, Sanqi said.

“More and more hardware shipments will be focused on data centre boxes, the likes of which Huawei sells. These are not just x86 processor boxes, but they might also require GPU power for video rendering,” he said.

It’s a big shift for an industry that has built networks around specialised appliances and likely needs critical mass from the vendor community before the carriers buy into the idea wholeheartedly. Yet the telcos already have one cheerleader.

Don Clarke, head of network evolution innovation at UK incumbent BT headed up a recent study to investigate the potential of using commodity equipment for network services and found that, not only did it match specialist gear in terms of performance—it could actually be more advantageous.

“The idea is to take a network appliance and run it as software on servers, storage and switches. Of course, it’s easier to deploy software images than it is to deploy hard boxes, but you can also apply resilience concepts that do not even exist in hardware, as well as it making testing and service assurance easier,” Clarke said.

Clarke is heading up the technical working group of the recently inaugurated ETSI Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) forum, which will focus on implementing network functions in software that can run on a range of industry standard server hardware, and that can be moved to, or instantiated in, various locations in the network as required, without the need to install new equipment.

But the key finding of BT’s investigation is that in order to do this properly, the industry needs standards.

OpenFlow is expected to be the chosen switching specification, while the Cloud OS will be based on OpenStack. Huawei is building a centralised routing control algorithm and the network OS is still to be decided on, but a key feature is that it decouples control from the devices themselves.

Sanqi said that a big part of Huawei’s product development will be in software, as network functions no longer be embedded in specialist network devices will all be controlled by software that needs to be open, abstract, programmable and virtualised.

“Carriers are looking for programmability in software to open up the capability to work with OTT,” he said.

“This next change is less about technology and more about business. The operator business model at present is rigid, slow, and hard to change. Network architecture today is closed, complicated, and still focused on elements that the carriers can control,” Sanqi said, alluding to the idea that telcos should be partnering with OTT services using technologies developed by the vendors.

“Vendors are increasingly responsible for the operator business model,” he added.

SDN World Summit, takes place on 11-13 June 2013, at the Fira Palace Hotel, Barcelona

  • Cable Next-Gen Digital Symposium

  • Network Virtualization & SDN Americas

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