Analyst Report: SDN, NFV, and open source: the operator’s view

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Software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) represent two of the more dramatic oncoming technology shifts in networking. Both will significantly alter network designs, deployments, operations, and future networking and computing systems. They also will determine supplier and operator success (or failure) over the next five to 10 years.

As has always been the case with successful networking technologies, industry standards and open systems will play a strong role in the timely widespread adoption and ultimate success of both SDN and NFV solutions. Open source is poised to play an even more critical role in delivering on the promise of standardized and open networking.

This great promise and potential impact begs two questions. First, “Where are SDN and NFV today?” And second, “What influence will open systems and open source have on the future of SDN and NFV?”

To find answers to these questions, in December 2013 Gigaom Research ran an extensive survey of 600 operators (300 enterprises and 300 service providers) in North America. Based on findings from that survey, this research report provides key insights into the current activity and future direction of SDN and NFV advancements as well as the development and deployment of open systems and open source within SDN and NFV environments.

Key highlights

  • SDN and NFV deployment timelines are extremely aggressive. While these timelines will certainly move out as real-world pressures (financial, technical, and organizational) force delays, these results indicate the high level of hope for SDN and NFV solutions.
  • Security continues to be a major challenge in networking. While SDN stands to solve many problems, improvements to the security posture of the world’s networks remains a primary driver across all networking advancements, including SDN and NFV. After security, key drivers include improved network service levels and lower operating and capital costs.
  • While much is made of the potential for SDN and NFV to optimize network spending, utilization, and service levels, near-term improvements in network operations are the primary focus for operators looking to deploy SDN and NFV solutions and take advantage of open source within their SDN and NFV environments.
  • The application of SDN and NFV solutions is varied – and surprising – across the respondents. As expected, the data center is a primary initial target for SDN and NFV solutions. However, for enterprise respondents, the wide area network (WAN) takes precedence over the data center. And likely reflecting the pressure of the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) movement, enterprises are targeting the wireless local area network LAN (WLAN) before the campus LAN, branch WAN, or metropolitan area network (MAN). For the service provider, the data center is far and away the No. 1 initial target. Interestingly, however, the LAN and the wireless WAN (WWAN) are targets two and three, respectively, for the service provider – not the WAN or the MAN.
  • Roadblocks that would push out the aggressive SDN and NFV deployment timelines planned by operators include migration costs, clear and consistent capabilities, and unproven performance and reliability. Interestingly, interoperability is viewed as the least of the concerns with SDN and NFV, perhaps because operators look at the close ties between SDN, NFV, open systems, and open source as a true saving grace, relieving them of the burden of heightened systems integration, which is the problem-resolution work that comes with an undoubtedly more mixed-vendor SDN and NFV environment in the future.
  • As expected, demand for industry standards and open systems within SDN and NFV solutions is strong. Freedom of choice and potential cost savings are obvious gains. Surprisingly, operators also expect open systems to deliver strong functionality. They are not simply looking for least-common-denominator functionality. They are looking for open systems to provide basic interoperability and leading-edge capabilities in areas that have traditionally challenged proprietary single-vendor solutions (e.g., administration, analytics, and security). Operators absolutely prefer open systems. They also demand that open systems add value beyond interoperability.
  • Open systems and open source are tightly linked in operators’ minds, indicating that open source is the preferred delivery method for standardized open SDN and NFV solutions. However, operators strongly prefer that open source be delivered by commercial suppliers. Here the operator looks to gain the best of both worlds – the freedom and functionality of open source combined with the proven delivery and support practices associated with commercial solutions.
  • Enterprise and service provider operators are closely aligned across all major areas of consideration and concern. They also are closely aligned in terms of deployment timelines. Among the service providers, SDN and NFV are also closely aligned in terms of deployment timelines, moving almost in lockstep over the next two years. The one area where enterprises and service providers differ is in their initial target for SDN and NFV deployments.
  • The perceived challenges to applying open source to SDN and NFV environments are also important. Operators see security and reliability as the biggest impediments to using open source when deploying SDN and NFV solutions. Does perception match reality? Are we seeing outdated open source perceptions at work as we did in the early days of OpenStack, Linux, and other successful open source projects? Given that today’s open source is conceived and developed by teams of operators and suppliers and increasingly delivered via proven commercial integration, test, packaging, deployment, and support models, perhaps in this instance operators are more wrong than right. Obviously the onus is on the open source projects to alter this perception. Alteration leads to acceleration of open source acceptance within SDN and NFV environments.

Table of Contents

  1. Summary
  2. The state of the network
  3. SDN and NFV: plans, promises, and problems
  4. The role of open source in SDN and NFV
  5. Appendix A: SDN/NFV survey
  6. Appendix B: the survey instruments
  7. About Mark Leary
  8. About OpenDaylight Project
  9. About Gigaom Research

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