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Is SDN a Salvation for Carriers?

Mar 20, 2012

Today, carrier traffic volumes are growing around 50 percent annually while revenues are flat. At the same time equipment prices are declining by only 10 to 20 percent, ultimately shrinking profitability.  This combination has caused SDN to catch the attention of carriers everywhere. But a second insight, probably of greater importance, is keeping their attention. The combination of an open protocol (think OpenFlow) and an accessible programming interface enables operators to control their network via open software. That is, a carrier can now program new features itself or with its own contractors whenever it wants. Thus SDN can cut a carrier’s operational and capital expenses and unleash the innovation needed to make the leap from bit mover to customer-experience provider.

Much of today’s networking equipment is highly specialized, monolithic, and expensive, akin to mainframe computers. If a carrier wants to add a new capability, feature, or service, it must wait for the vendor of network infrastructure equipment to implement it or possibly even for a new standard, which can take years. To remain competitive, carriers have an increasing need to revamp their cost structure and roll out new services in mere months. SDN allows them to do this.

The goal of SDN is to make networks as programmable and manageable as computers. With SDN, operators can use off-the-shelf networking hardware and run off-the-shelf – or custom – control and management software in off-the-shelf servers. By making networking devices more like data-center platforms, SDN can lower a carrier’s total cost of ownership and eliminate vendor lock-in. One of the largest benefits for carriers is that SDN fosters network innovation at speeds comparable to the software industry. Carriers could roll out a new capability, such as service-aware routing, in the time it takes to write the code.

A community of carriers has already sprung up to develop SDN software and services, creating new revenue opportunities and models for carriers, and the potential is growing. In the coming weeks, we will discuss the many opportunities there are for carriers in relation to SDN, and take a deep dive into why the technology is of benefit for this community. If you have stories of how SDN is firing the imagination of carriers  you know, do please let me know. We are open to guest blog posts.

-Dan Pitt

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Dan Pitt