AT&T, CenturyLink and others commit to SDN despite ROI uncertainty

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Sean Buckley, FierceTelecomThe wireline and wireless industry segments have started, or are considering, implementing SDN and NFV into their networks to gain new network agility and the ability to drive automation into their service delivery processes.

These providers' SDN/NFV strategies will be the focus of a panel I'm moderating at Mobile World Congress.

Already, a number of service providers including AT&T (NYSE: T), CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL), Orange and Verizon (NYSE: VZ) have embarked on a virtualization program for their networks.

With a focus on providing cloud and network on-demand services, AT&T has been clearly the most aggressive service provider on the SDN and NFV front. AT&T has set a goal to virtualize 5 percent of its network functions by the end of 2015 and 75 percent by 2020, which its CTO John Donovan said the carrier is on track to do. 

The fruits of AT&T's SDN and NFV labor have been seen in services like its Network on Demand capability, which is being deployed as part of its User Defined Network Cloud (UDNC) strategy launched in February 2014. On the wireless side, AT&T is implementing SDN in its mobile packet core with initial plans to virtualize portions of its connected car program, as well as its VoIP and MVNO services.

Likewise, CenturyLink has been rolling out SDN-based plans and services. The service provider has over 36 locations in multiple geographies equipped with its virtual network services (VNS).

Not to be outdone, Verizon announced in April 2015 that was moving to a software-centric network architecture to reduce costs and accelerate service delivery. As part of that effort, the service provider said it would initially be working with vendors Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), Cisco Systems, Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC), Juniper Networks and Nokia Networks (NYSE:NOK) on its SDN deployment. Later, it joined AT&T and others as a member of the ONOS (Open source SDN Network Operating System) Project in January. This will enable Verizon to collaborate with other service and solutions providers to solve the challenges of developing scalable, highly-available SDN architectures.

Verizon told FierceTelecom in a previous interview that it would deploy SDN in its IP multimedia subsystem and evolved packet core. The provider will initially focus on its core network and data center network functions but will also deploy SDN in the radio access network.

Regardless of the strides operators and their vendor partners are touting, the transition to SDN and NFV is hardly a slam dunk. Current Analysis revealed in its 2015 Carrier SDN/NFV survey that while network suppliers are focused on helping service providers make SDN and NFV operational, an "uncertain ROI" is a remaining roadblock.

Tom Nolle, president and founder of CIMI Corp. agreed, but added service providers have yet to prove a business case to conduct a large-scale network trial of SDN and NFV.

"The trials of SDN and NFV have focused on proving the technology works at the technical/functional level, not that either can deliver a business case," Nolle said in an interview with FierceTelecom. "Most operators are skeptical that capex reduction will be enough to validate either SDN or NFV. That leaves either operations efficiency or service agility. You can argue that both SDN and NFV could deliver an improvement in both areas, but neither of the standards goes far enough into operations/management to prove that's the case. We have to prove out these technologies in 2016 at least enough to justify large-scale field trials. We can't yet do that."

What all of this means is that service providers and their vendors have a lot of work to do to prove that SDN and NFV is something they can derive true benefits and revenue from.

I will be looking at building a business case for SDN and NFV and how service providers can overcome challenges using these technologies during our panel at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Wednesday, Feb. 24 at the Fira Congress Hotel (located just a short walk from the Fira Gran Via). The event, "Answering the Big Question: When Will Deploying SDN and NFV Payoff for Operators?" begins at 12:30 p.m. and ends at 2 p.m.

My panelists include:

·         Rupesh Chokshi, Director, AT&T Mobile and Business Solutions;

·         Prodip Sen, CTO, NFV Business, Hewlett Packard Enterprise; and

·         Yves Bellego, Director of Network Strategy at Orange

To get a handle on what SDN means to you and your company, you'll want to be a part of my panel discussion. I'll allow plenty of time for you to ask the panelists all your questions. To register, click here.–Sean

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