SDN/NFV: How Virtualization Evolves This Year on the Road to 5G


Software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) are the technologies driving next generation network transformation; but the factors impacting faster SDN/NFV adoption are the same ones slowing the road to 5G. While there are many technical challenges, it comes down to the fact that this is a paradigm shift. Running a hybrid networking environment can be challenging; communications service providers (CSPs) simply can’t afford to interrupt mission critical services inadvertently while upgrading their networks. Also, investing in network transformation takes buy-in internally and developing a business case for the CFO is challenging when the return on investment is difficult to prove – as is often the case in new technology adoption. Nevertheless, CSPs can’t ignore that 5G is on the not-so-distant horizon, so network transformation this year is more critical than ever.  

Virtualization is a central to 5G, but CSPs must move now on network transformation

With commercialization expected after 2020, the 5G network promises to transform the way in which the telecommunications industry can deliver and monetize services. Some of the main benefits realized through 5G will be:

  1. Programmable networks to support a variety of Internet of Things (IoT) use cases that require different latency, reliability and data rate parameters.
  2. Optimized network resources that will efficiently handle the exponential growth in data traffic connected devices, cloud computing, 4K video streaming, and AR/VR will generate.
  3. New revenue generation through monetization of software-based, value-added services, e.g., real-time analytics.

Virtualization will play a pivot role in getting the industry to 5G. SDN/NFV progress has been made in the telecom industry; but not at the pace of adoption originally anticipated. Some of the major challenges to faster adoption has been:

  • Culture: Virtualization is different and complex. This is a new market, so change must start from within the company’s culture, which is never an easy task.
  • Investment hesitation during hybrid networking: Getting started in NFV will mean increased investment and increased complexity at first, as physical network and virtual networking run concurrently.
  • Competition from web-scale companies (Amazon, Facebook, Google). The web-scale architectures are already agile, “born on the cloud”, and built on the new, faster principles that CSPs need to adopt today.

There are real SDN/NFV deployments, but there’s still a lot to be done. What CSPs have been doing is taking a network function and “virtualizing” it, which means translating into software and running it over a server. But the issue is that the service is not “carrier grade” and the deployments are not delivering on the promise of SDN and NFV: scale, automation, and network resource optimization. That’s where cloud technologies or “telco cloud” comes in. Delivering virtual network functions over cloud-native architectures will get the operators to where they want to be – on a network that can continuously deliver new services on the fly for new revenue generation. 

There’s a stronger sense of urgency to virtualize networks as the industry entered 2018 because while virtualization is a central component of 5G, it is not practical for operators to wait until 2020 to begin network transformation efforts. Over the next year, CSPs’ network transformation priorities will shift to cloud migration and automation as they continue to pave their way to 5G and leading telecom vendors have an opportunity to address these priorities through software portfolio expansions and acquisitions to gain additional virtualization capabilities (see Table 1).   

Through SDN and NFV, CSPs are laying the groundwork for 5G. The ultimate vision is a virtualized network platform that is cloud-centric, programmable, and automated to improve and enhance service delivery innovation – ultimately leading to faster revenue realization over 5G networks. Over the next year, CSPs and telecom vendors that will lead in NFV/SDN will continue to create deeper relationships with cloud providers to offer customers more control, options, and agility.

Author's Bio

Stephanie Gibbons

Principal Analyst, Network Infrastructure & Software