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Summary:

Mobile operators have a profitability problem in that they have high network costs and a growing demand for mobile data. To deliver data efficiently operators are testing new technologies such as software-defined networks.

Software-defined networking
photo: Jordan Novet

Almost all mobile carriers — at 93 percent — expect to implement software-defined networks in their businesses over the next five years, according to data from Informa, a telecommunications analyst firm. This is an astonishing take-up rate for a technology that has been lambasted as not having a real use case by IT execs, venture capitalists and even networking vendors.

While the Informa survey doesn’t make distinctions between software defined networking (SDN) or network function virtualization (it’s a bastardized version of SDN that vendors are pushing to carriers) the rationale for such a high and rapid adoption is clear. Mobile operators are fighting a losing battle against demand for data and the cost to provide the infrastructure to deliver the data people want to consume. It’s a tough problem to have, but thankfully several innovations are available to help the carriers change their network architectures to deliver data instead of yesteryear’s voice.

The idea of heterogeneous networks, or het-net as my colleague Kevin Fitchard has written about, is one such innovation, as are self-optimizing networks. But deep in the bowels of the network is another new technology — software defined networks. By separating the networking applications from the networking hardware using virtualization, carriers can make adjustments to their networks on the fly without having to unplug cables or swap out line cards.

Clearly, operators will still have to add new hardware to boost capacity, but they can then allocate all those new hardware resources smartly. That can save on engineering costs, but also gives operators some flexibility they haven’t had in the past. And as the use of mobile networks becomes more dynamic, this is an important element.

Informa expects that operators will start this journey with reducing costs and adding agility in mind, but will rapidly realize it allows operators to offer new products and may help them boost revenue. The survey was sponsored by Juniper, which sees SDN as both a threat and an opportunity to its business.

The survey also found that LTE and LTE-Advanced deployments are expected to be the biggest drivers of mobile SDN adoption, with the adoption led by developed markets in North America and in Asia Pacific (South Korea and Japan).

  1. ConteXtream has been focusing on SDN for carriers and has more revenue than all SDN startup companies combined

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  2. Good piece, Stacey, and it’s something we’re seeing at Skyfire as well – the rapid move toward lightweight, flexible architectures and a big push by carriers toward virtualizing their functions in the cloud.

    One simple way for operators to realize some SDN benefits right away is in the mobile video optimization arena. Our Rocket Optimizer is a virtualized solution that already works with leading SDN-based steering vendors, such as the aforementioned ConteXtream, and with Affirmed Networks, who use software to define routings and functions on commodity-hardware servers. Thanks for bringing some light to what’s likely to be a huge groundswell in coming months.

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  3. It seems like every subsequent SDN (or related) survey increases the number of people who are going to deploy. The business impact appears to be getting larger and larger. I don’t think we will see a brand new market, but I do think that firms will have to continuously adjust their estimates of market impact upward.

    Our initial guess was that 30-40% of network purchases would consider SDN in some way by SDN. Some people thought that was nuts, but looks like we weren’t too high.

    http://www.plexxi.com/2013/04/sdn-market-to-reach-35b-by-2018/

    -Mike Bushong (@mbushong)
    Plexxi

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