Editor’s Corner—Verizon remains muted on SDN goals, but plan could be big

Sean Buckley, FierceTelecom

Verizon has been surprisingly mum about the progress it has made with network virtualization plans, prompting some to wonder how far along the service provider is or if it has a large announcement pending. But that’s not to say that Verizon isn’t doing anything on the SDN front.

While Verizon could not provide any new comment to us about its SDN network plans, Verizon laid out its initial SDN migration plans in 2015. At that time, it named a number of its SDN virtualization partners. For the wireline side, the telco told FierceTelecom that the main focus would be on replacing aging hardware-based network elements with software.

To test its SDN vision, Verizon created live lab environments in San Jose, California; Tampa, Florida; and Waltham, Massachusetts, and has commercial data center environments on both the East and West Coasts.

Verizon’s silence is contrasted by AT&T, which has been very vocal about its virtualization plans and progress. AT&T has publicly said that it will have 75% of its network virtualized by 2018. Likewise, CenturyLink also said it has virtualized 60% of its POPs.

Jennifer Fritzsche, senior analyst for Wells Fargo, said in a research note that perhaps Verizon’s multibillion-dollar fiber expansion plan could be a precursor or part of the SDN plan.

“It is interesting that VZ has been much more muted than AT&T on its SDN (software-defined networking) goals,” Fritzsche said. “Whereas AT&T gives specific timing for its SDN milestones, VZ has been somewhat oddly quietespecially given it will be building a fiber network. You have to wonder if this quietness will continue. We know fiber is a critical element in any SDN build.”

SD-WAN’s emergence

Despite being quiet about its overall virtualization network plans, Verizon has been aggressively rolling out an SD-WAN portfolio, adding a number of vendors and new capabilities over the past year.

After launching the service in early 2016, Verizon has continued to ramp up its SD-WAN customer base. The service provider has over 90 active SD-WAN implementations and 16 full-scale deployments. It also has 30 participants taking part in a universal CPE program trial.

Similar to offering Ethernet and other next-gen services, Matt Ellis, CFO of Verizon said during the MoffettNathanson Media and Communications Summit that SD-WAN is helping to “offset some of the secular decline” it is seeing in the business services segment.

Initially offering SD-WAN to large enterprises, the service provider recently began targeting small and medium businesses that are implementing consumer-grade services into their network environments. This offering includes software-based networking, cloud-based end user management and virtualized security services for protecting and simplifying branch network architectures.

Leveraging Versa Networks’ Versa’s FlexVNF Software, Verizon will allow customers to reduce complexity and control costs by virtualizing multiple components of a branch office.

Shawn Hakl, VP of business networking and security solutions, told me in an earlier interview that the service provider is migrating to a more general software systems strategy.

“We’re still aggressively expanding out the hardware platforms that run this stuff, moving away from the grey box to a much more defined white box strategy,” Hakl said.

Differing approaches

While Verizon is not providing much information about its specific SDN plans, the issue may be as simple as the way service providers define their software and virtualization plans.

Tom Nolle, principal of CIMI Corp., says that the difference between AT&T and Verizon is in the way the two operators look at the role of virtualization in their respective networks.

“One problem with 'competing utterances' is that 'SDN' doesn't mean anything specific anymore, which makes it hard to compare positions,” Nolle said. “I think AT&T is a 'loose constructionist' in SDN terms, meaning that they allow anything where software controls network behavior to be called 'SDN.' I think Verizon is a 'strict constructionist' meaning that they use the term to mean 'OpenFlow-driven switching.'"

Nolle added that the one big difference here is that AT&T has a plan for a more cloud-centric network, and while Verizon may have an internal development on this concept, it may not be as far along.  

“AT&T has ECOMP, which is at least a plausible orchestration model for service lifecycle management,” Nolle said. “Verizon doesn't have a similar concept and doesn't seem to want AT&T's either,” Nolle said. “Does that mean they're being petulant, or do they realize (as I've been saying) that we need some strong architecture at the middleware level before we start to build telco service lifecycle tools on top? If it's the former, they may wait way too long to develop anything. If it's the latter they could end up with something that makes ECOMP obsolete.”

One reason why there are different approaches could be related to the complexity of driving towards a software-defined architecture. Telcos for over a century have run hardware-based systems.

During a 2016 session at the TIA trade show, Verizon acknowledged the challenges with doing SDN migration. Andrew Ray, director of planning of network support systems for Verizon, said that unlike the web-based world that does not have legacy services, telcos still have to balance the new with old services that it still has to support.

"As you're decoupling these monolithic hardware and software solutions you get from your suppliers and forcing them into one environment, you have to change your business model, you have to change your operations model, and adopt Dev Ops," Ray said. "These are things that the web-based world has gone down this path much earlier than the telecom world."

But even with this complexity, I have to agree with Fritzsche that Verizon could be set to make a big SDN splash.

“Even if the logic of that plan is communicated later than expected to the Street….there is always a plan,” Fritzsche said. “So….. with this in mind, we think it is fair to assume this quietness about SDN and other factors (backhaul savings?) is about to be over.”

Verizon, like other telcos recognize a path to implementing virtualization across its network, but getting there will be based on a balanced approach designed to create future. While I can’t hazard a guess when Verizon will make a big splash about its network virtualization progress, the service provider has clearly set a path that will advance the way it operates its network and serves customers.Sean