Editor’s Corner—Hybrid SD-WAN/MPLS, cable and automation dominated the headlines at MEF17

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Sean Buckley, FierceTelecom

ORLANDO—This year’s MEF17 trade show reflected a time of transition and disruption in the networking and telecom industry where players are looking for ways to effectively virtualize their networks via SDN and NFV. The end result for service providers is a more agile network that users can interact with to more rapidly procure and provision services. 

Service providers and their vendor partners are looking for ways to migrate towards networks that are virtualized with automated capabilities that allow the user to gain more control and say in how they access and use services.

During the event, we identified five themes worth watching:

1. MPLS/SD-WAN coexistence is the watchword

SD-WAN may be the new flavor of WAN networking, but even the most aggressive players and advocates of this technology are being realistic about how fast it will be adopted by businesses. Like the earlier migrations from ATM and Frame Relay, SD-WAN is not going to just replace MPLS overnight. Taking it a step further, service providers are also touting the SD Edge concept where SD-WAN is just one of several services offered over an SDN-based network.

This is a mentality emerging business providers and telcos share. Insurgent business providers like Comcast and Spectrum Enterprise, Charter’s business arm, see a near-term hybrid reality where MPLS and SD-WAN will coexist.

Satya Parimi, EVP of enterprise data and cloud for Spectrum Enterprise, told FierceTelecom that Spectrum is offering a hybrid approach from day one focused on helping its Ethernet customers bridge the gap between their legacy networks and future next-gen architectures like SD-WAN.  

RELATED: Charter’s Spectrum Enterprise displays hybrid SD-WAN, begins customer field trials

“There’s a lot of legacy technologies and networks out there,” Parimi said. “You may create some newer next-gen solutions around SD-WAN, but people won’t flash cut to them.”

Likewise, traditional telcos like AT&T, a company that pioneered MPLS for business, expects businesses to migrate to SD-WAN on a case by case basis.

“We’re comfortable looking at a customer’s sites individually because every site is different,” said Josh Goodell, VP of intelligent edge for AT&T. “From an access perspective, we want to fit the access solution to whatever the problem is that the customer is trying to solve. In some cases that will MPLS itself, in some cases it will be MPLS plus broadband and in other cases it will be just broadband.”

2. Cable is still shaking up business services

Cable operators, while arguably not as large as incumbents in terms of worldwide reach, are shaking up the Ethernet and business services market overall. Besides enhancing their networks with fiber, these operators are leveraging their existing HFC networks to deliver DOCSIS 3.1-based 1 Gbps services to small businesses and branch offices of larger businesses. According to Vertical Systems Group, cable is the fastest growing segment in the Ethernet market. Interestingly, only Comcast and Spectrum Enterprise had a major presence at MEF 17. Notably absent was Altice USA and Cox, one of the early Ethernet and cable business pioneers.

For Comcast and Charter, the key trend was not just Ethernet, but also SD-WAN, each of which is taking a different approach. Comcast is initially leveraging an over the top SD-WAN offering, one that leverages its growing DOCSIS 3.1 and fiber networks. The cable MSO’s hope is to not only appeal to small businesses, but also to branch offices of large businesses. Spectrum Enterprise, meanwhile, is offering an SD-WAN product that it says is focused on providing hybrid WANs that stitch together Ethernet and internet access.  

3. Automation is on the rise

One of the great promises of the emerging SDN and NFV network architectures is automation. Several carriers and their vendor partners held Proof of Concept (PoC) demonstrations during MEF17 focused on how to automate the delivery of optical, SD-WAN and Ethernet services. Windstream, working in partnership with its optical partners Coriant, Ciena and Infinera, demonstrated intent-based, on-demand automation of wavelength services in a multivendor, multiplatform and multidomain environment. Specifically, the PoC demonstrated end-to-end activation—turning up and down—of Windstream’s SDNow transport solutions of 10G bandwidth on-demand.

RELATED: Linux Foundation’s Joshipura says ONAP is now the de facto open networking platform

Other notable PoCs came from Spectrum Enterprise, AT&T, Colt and Orange. In conjunction with Nuage and Palo Alto Networks, Spectrum Enterprise demonstrated an integrated SD-WAN and Ethernet network with a virtual firewall. Meanwhile, AT&T, Colt and Orange demonstrated multicarrier Ethernet delivery. This is important for service providers trying to establish off-net connectivity to serve multisite customers with Ethernet outside of their wireline regions. While these PoCs focused on different elements, they are an important way to illustrate how vendors and service providers can work to illustrate how automation can work in a real-world network environment.

4. Evolving MEF aims to bridge the Carrier Ethernet gap

The MEF itself is evolving. Following its successful Carrier Ethernet 2.0 spec from 2013, the group released MEF 3.0. This latest iteration reflects the desire to have orchestrated an automated service sets. The new framework collects standard services with emerging Lifecycle Orchestration (LSO) APIs to provide an on-demand and cloud centric experience that allow users to control applications over network resources and services. Not surprisingly, a key focus for MEF is to bridge the gap between CE 2.0 and MEF 3.0.

CenturyLink, which just completed its acquisition of Level 3, says MEF 3.0 will help the company be more efficient with responding to customer service activation in between Ethernet providers.

“We’ve been working with the MEF on how you provision on-demand API activation for capacity and connections across carriers,” said Travis Ewert, VP of software defined services and big data for CenturyLink.  

5. Vendors are disaggregating hardware, software

As more service providers migrate towards SDN and NFV, they are looking at ways to disaggregate hardware and software. On the hardware side, this is known as the “white box” where traditional hardware vendors are working with other operating system companies and silicon vendors to build interoperable systems. This is a break from the closed and proprietary systems "white box" companies are disrupting this business by developing software that will run on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) servers.

AT&T, for one, has already begun to use a white box solution as part of the CPE gear for its Flexware service.

RELATED: AT&T sharpens SD-WAN and FlexWare focus

John Medamana, VP of packet and optical for AT&T, said the bigger challenge for AT&T will lie in disaggregating software in the core parts of its network.

“When it’s the core and the edge of the network, we are touching the more sensitive parts if it does not work well it could have bigger consequences,” Medamana said.

Vendors like Telco Systems are responding. With its NFVtime, service providers can choose any x86 hardware to deploy multiple, tested, preconfigured and automatically provisioned VNFs. NFVTime is an open and neutral full NFV service environment that allows telecom service providers and network integrators a smooth launch path to NFV services, for example.

MEF 17 illustrated that the way service providers, vendors and users interact with services is changing. Gone are the days where vendors supplied a soup-to-nuts solution that was closed to service providers. Carriers now want disaggregated platforms that allow them to better control and provision services. While it won’t happen immediately this shift is many ways like how the advent of Ethernet has become the dominant data network protocol.--Sean | @FierceTelecom