The Future of Software-defined Networks

Originally published in Billing & OSS World

 Software-defined networking (SDN) is a term that’s gaining traction in the tech world, and with good reason — it’s essentially a whole new way to define router operations on your network. SDN puts control into the hands of network engineers and administrators by letting them respond to changing business requirements in real-time. Essentially, in a SDN network, control is directly programmable and gives administrators more functionality than ever before. This is a giant leap forward from today’s static routing, which is not application-dependent and can be nearly impossible to change.

Large tech companies like Amazon and Google are already starting to use SDN, but it’s clear that this new way of routing also offers a world of networking possibilities for service providers. At its core, SDN is a tool that would enable MSOs to reconfigure their networks on the fly to adapt to different subscriber usage patterns or an application’s need. This would be much more efficient than current static configurations and would let you easily reroute network traffic to make your network run optimally. You could design network routing applications and shape traffic from a central controller that reconfigures network switches in real-time. This could include prioritizing or even blocking different packets when necessary and allowing administrators to base routing decisions on external systems and events, such as a maintenance window. The possibilities are nearly endless with this level of routing flexibility.

In the future, we could also see the development of new applications and services that make the most of SDN. For instance, an IP detail record (IPDR) tool could use SDN where there is over-utilization of bandwidth traffic in one area by informing the network administrator to reconfigure and reroute traffic. As a network administrator, you could choose to place preference on one type of traffic over another, such as one person’s Netflix over another person’s, and influence traffic down to the application or subscriber level.

We may also see a correlation between the provisioning of premium subscriber services and the use of SDN to provide those services. The activation of premium services, for example, could have a direct effect on routing, where subscribers with fast, premium Internet packages are switched to faster configurations instantly. The software-defined network would plug into your back-end and billing systems to ensure this takes place in real-time. This would allow you to deliver enhanced quality of service for premium subscribers and also offer a greater range of service options.

 At the moment, however, SDN is still in its infancy. Most enterprises and service providers are sitting back to watch how this new technology plays out. Open-source initiatives such as OpenFlow are spurring more interest in SDN and some larger MSOs are already exploring how SDN could improve networking, but it’s likely to be two or three more years before we understand its potential for our industry. That’s not to say that you can’t start exploring the possibilities now — OpenFlow firmware and configurations are readily available for testing.

The SDN movement might worry some hardware manufacturers, but essentially, this trend mirrors what MSOs have always wanted — the ability to understand and optimize network traffic to better serve their subscribers. But while you’re waiting for SDN to mature, there are other tools that make use of SNMP and IPDR to help you better understand how and where your bandwidth is being used. Once you’ve identified existing bottlenecks and problem areas, you’re already on your way to delivering a better service. Meanwhile, initiatives around SDN will continue to develop and we’ll be hearing a lot more about this type of networking in the future.