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SDN and NFV – the building blocks of becoming a digital telco

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The building blocks of African telcos
The building blocks of African telcos

Telcos in Africa are walking a fine line having to balance the needs of providing higher quality and feature rich network services while maximising return on their network investments. With quality of service recognised as one of the key reasons in people deciding to change network operators, it’s important to maintain great service levels. But with tens of millions of new voice and data subscribers expected to need connectivity in the coming years, operators also must serve the growing customer base and their demands.

Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) provide several levers that carriers can use to help them achieve both aims, without needing massive network investment programmes.

SDN centralises the intelligence of the network into a virtualised environment – so the network control is abstracted away from the network transport layer which in turn allows for a greater agility, manageability, flexibility and cost effectiveness. NFV virtualises entire classes of network node functions, such as load balancers, firewalls, intrusion detection devices or WAN accelerators, for instance.

SDN and NFV offer exciting opportunities for operators to orchestrate and even automate parts of their network management functions, with a number of advantages:

  • Reduce dependence on OEMs and proprietary standards: network configuration hardware has traditionally locked-in operators, forcing them to work within narrow, predefined limits. Modernising network functions required firmware updates and sometimes even radical ‘rip and replace’ strategies. But with open-standards governing their virtualisation strategy, operators can avoid the trap of “vendor lock-in”, and make continual upgrades to infrastructure, without expensive hardware changes.
  • Cost reduction: New features and functionality can be deployed on existing networks reducing the cost of new capability deployment and extending the useful asset life of your network infrastructure. This has a direct benefit in terms of network costs with improving your return on assets and reducing your investment requirement. Research by Strategy Analytics (Source:$4b/d/d-id/705423) found that the use of SDN could save US-based mobile operators more than $4 billion in capex in 2017. By making more efficient use of network resources, operators are guaranteed they’re squeezing maximum value from their networks.
  • No more in-field configuration: NFV enables configuration of new and existing networks in a fully-remote manner. Service providers no longer have to send specialists to one’s physical location (such as an office complex) to configure or maintain networking equipment. This improves speed of new service or feature delivery while also reducing the workforce cost to delivery this.
    Consolidated traffic into a single virtualised network: Hardware and bandwidth can be used more efficiently by managing one’s various underlying networks from a single control console – pulling together everything from WiFi, cellular, fixed-line IP, MPLS and any other WAN network.
  • New business services and revenue streams: particularly applicable in the enterprise space, SDN and NFV enables operators to more closely bond their core transmission services to a host of other services – from security tools like firewalls, encryption, and intrusion detection, to cloud-delivered business software, service monitoring, network caching, and more.
  • New consumer services and revenue streams: Among individual consumers, operators also benefit from moving into software-based applications – from mobile apps that enjoy cheaper data rates, or the opportunities for consumers to shape and change their monthly contracts, there’s a wide array of exciting possibilities in this arena.
  • Partnerships enabled by network prioritisation: by better prioritising traffic, operators can enter partnerships with broadcasters and other online content providers, to create packaged offerings for consumers, and ultimately share in the revenue from premium online services.
    Powering the cloud revolution: we’ve seen the explosion of over-the-top services from the likes of Amazon, Google and Salesforce, everywhere from the largest enterprises all the way to individual consumers. With virtualisation, carriers can unlock even greater Cloud potential, spurring increased enhancements in the way we work, and the way we connect with each other.

The SDN and NFV landscapes are still maturing, with new benefits emerging all the time. Those operators that start exploring virtualisation technology on their networks, even if it’s just in isolated pockets for the time being, will have the jump-start on competitors as the technologies mature.

SDN and NFV enable smarter, more digitised networks – and their value only increases over time. Think of it as something like how Elon Musk has revolutionized the car through the Tesla; it may still have four wheels and an engine and look like a car. But the Tesla engineers have the ability to push updates overnight meaning that in the morning you can climb into a ‘new car’, with enhanced self-driving capabilities, or a new launch control feature, for example. With SDN and NFV, operators get the same level of agility, pushing both minor and major configuration updates to their users whenever they decide, from a centralised location right to your office branch.

By Viswanathan Ramaswamy, Vice President and CTO, Communication, Wipro Limited and Hrusostomos Vicatos – Business Development Executive for the Telco Sector, Wipro Limited

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