PARIS -- MPLS, SDN and NFV World Congress 2018 -- There must have been something in the coffee in Paris this week.
Panel sessions at trade shows are often a reality check for the industry, but to hear one deliver such a negative assessment of a technology in the limelight is unusual.
Executives from Orange and Telefónica on the telco side, Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) and RAD Data Communications Ltd. in the vendor community and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) from the Internet world were asked here in Paris to consider whether SDN and NFV were mainly hype or reality. And their discussion came down firmly on the side of hype.
That is a bit of a wake-up call for the wider industry. SDN and NFV have now been around for several years. Orange (NYSE: FTE) and Telefónica, moreover, are typically seen as pioneers when it comes to investment in these technologies. Telefónica was one of the first European giants to make a big commitment to virtualization when it announced its Unica program in 2014. Orange said it had moved into the "industrial phase" of NFV deployment in October. (See Orange Moves to 'Industrial' NFV Phase, Will Start in Spain and Telefónica Unveils Aggressive NFV Plans.)
But that did not prevent Stephane Litkowski, a network architect with Orange, from questioning the rationale for spending money on SDN and NFV technologies.
"In my view SDN is still hype and not really a new concept," he told an audience at this week's MPLS, SDN and NFV World Congress in Paris. "The centralization of network management is something we've been able to do for years. It seems we are never really investing in new things but reusing concepts because we can never find a good trade-off. Centralization has its advantages but there is also a need for distribution. I would never set up a network when I have only a single controller because what happens if it fails?"
Israeli vendor RAD also joined in the SDN and NFV bashing, with Yaakov Stein, the company's chief technology officer, suggesting SDN is a "bubble" and questioning NFV's cost benefits.
"When you are doing network functions out in the network, the question is whether you are really saving money by using generic instead of optimized hardware," he said.
RAD, of course, has legacy as well as SDN and NFV products in its portfolio, but Litkowski agreed with Stein's remarks. "The cost of the power needed with generic hardware is not really economical," he pointed out. "NFV is a reality but is it the reality we wanted?"
On a more positive note, the Orange executive suggested the use of field programmable gate arrays (or FGPAs), which are customizable integrated circuits, might help to make NFV a more welcome reality. "With network functions we have very special requirements and the main pain point is still performance and the determinism of packet processing," he said.
For Nokia's Wim Henderickx, the main challenge is on the applications side. "The applications people still look at the network as though it is from the past," he said. "They are still relying on Layer 2-based resiliency mechanisms and applying the physical world in a virtual environment. We are missing specifications on how apps should run in the cloud and as a result there is complexity in the onboarding element."
Coming several hours after Google's Vijoy Pandey had talked about the Internet giant's investments in intent-based networking tools, to support further automation of its data centers and backbone networks, this was all rather worrying, despite the jocular tone of the panel discussion. If they are not about cost, SDN and NFV are supposed to aid telco agility and speed to market. Yet technology executives are still voicing doubts more than four years after Telefónica first mentioned Unica. For the industry's sake, one must hope the discussion has moved on this time next year. (See Google Has Intent to Cut Humans Out of Network.)
— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading