SDN: The Long and Winding Road from Legacy Telco to Network Nirvana

It's easy to see why there's so much buzz in the telecommunications and networking community around software defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV).

The reason? Virtualization stands to benefit every stakeholder in the networking community. Network vendors see virtualization as an opportunity to develop new, proprietary solutions for customers; Network operators understand that centralized, virtualized, automated network control would help them to improve network resilience and flexibility, while reducing infrastructure CAPEX. And customers are interested in the on-demand services that virtualization enables.

These benefits all add up to a state of "network nirvana" – a win-win-win scenario for network vendors, operators and customers. In particular, network vendors are driving much of the interest around SDN, because their coffers have been lined with R&D funding and they're eager to develop new, industry-altering solutions.

Despite all of the goodwill around virtualization, there's plenty of skepticism around SDN's immediate impact on the world of telecommunications – few network specialists expect the road toward network nirvana to be a straightforward one.

For one, SDN standards have been anything but standard. The proprietary nature of SDN developments has created a "zoo of orchestrators," according to some in the telco community. And, as SDN Central explains, "current SDN standards, including the industry favored OpenFlow, have not yet been augmented to specify carrier-grade functionalities."

Another cause for concern is that the network operators that are actually tasked with executing virtualization will have to reconstruct their legacy models to mesh with SDN. They will have to integrate all of the new technology that will virtualize network functions, as well as transform their business processes. Furthermore, it's also up to network operators to determine how they can transfer SDN's benefits to customers served by partner networks, where "off-net" connectivity is deployed. This could explain why only 12 percent of networking specialists said they needed SDN immediately and why 37 percent described SDN as "undefined, like a trip without a map."

Still, despite their initial apprehension, one in three network operators plan to adopt virtualization solutions by 2015. A transition this dramatic – from legacy telco models to ones defined by virtualization – will require vendors, carriers, ISPs and other connectivity providers to collaborate. Throughout this process, the carrier neutral data centers that house these entities will act as facilitators, helping the telco community to finally deliver the network nirvana that's always been just out of reach.