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Network virtualization, software-defined networking … call it what you want, this is a big deal for telcos

SDN: More Than Just a Tremor

Ray Le Maistre
10/24/2012
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For the past two days I've been in Darmstadt, Germany, along with more than 300 others -- many from Tier 1 operators -- at the SDN & OpenFlow World Congress. Darmstadt isn't the most obvious location for an industry event, but it's home to many Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) R&D staff and the German incumbent has been a major participant at the event.

And it's in western Germany in late October, so no-one is here for the beach or to spend a long weekend visiting the sights. No offense intended, but Darmstadt is no tourist trap.

The attendees are here because the topics of wide-area network virtualization and software-defined networking (SDN) are a couple of the hottest in the industry right now. The potential changes to the way that traditional telcos might be able to run their networks and introduce new services is exciting just about every carrier CTO/CIO office on the planet.

As Matt Finnie, CTO at pan-European network operator Interoute Communications Ltd. said here today, "This is possibly the biggest shift in telecoms in 30 years."

It's clear that others agree. That's why more than a dozen carriers (and the number is growing) have formed a new Industry Specifications Group to jointly decide what the potential of Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) could be. Look at the list of names involved -- this is serious stuff. (See Carriers Collaborate on Network of the Future.)

While there's a great deal of excitement, there's also healthy skepticism about what can really be done in carrier networks -- there are a lot of challenges to overcome. But there are also many projects in operator labs and even creeping into production networks that show there is great potential for a new way of building, configuring and abstracting networking capabilities.

There's a lot more to come on this in the coming years -- this is just the beginning. But expect things to happen fast. Companies such as Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) are already deploying SDN techniques in their live networks and that means there will be others doing the same thing. The telcos know that if they don't build the networks of the future, someone else will. (See Google: SDN Works for Us.)

And whoever builds the networks, don't expect them to turn to the traditional network vendors for the technology -- that's far from a given. The equipment suppliers will need to move just as fast as the operators and prove themselves capable of delivering on operator requirements -- historical relationships will count for little in the world of virtualized network services.

This isn't just another tremor in the telecom world -- this is a full-scale earthquake. Expect the networking earth to move.

— Ray Le Maistre, International Managing Editor, Light Reading

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