Alan Weissberger Software Defined Network

2014 Hot Interconnects: Hardware for Software Defined Networks & NFV – Part II.


This closing Hot Interconnects session on  Hardware for Software Defined Networks (SDN) & Network Function Virtualization (NFV) was very informative. It revealed very interesting carrier market research and raised quite a few questions/ open issues related to dedicated network hardware to be used in SDN/NFV networks.  It was not, however, a “Venture Capital Forum” as the session was labeled in the program agenda [VC Forum-Fireside Dialogue: Mind the Silicon Innovation Gap].

Presentation & Discussion:

Infonetics co-founder and principal analyst Michael Howard led off the session with a presentation that contained a very intriguing time-line for network operators experiments and deployments of SDN/NFV (see chart below).

Operator SDN and NFV timeline, according to Infonetics.
Image courtesy of Infonetics

Author’s note:  We believe that it won’t be till 2018 or later for the SDN/NFV market to accelerate due to customer confusion of so many proprietary/vendor specific approaches.  Our assumption is based on standards being in place which will facilitate multi-vendor interoperability for SDN/NFV.


Here are the key points made by Mr. Howard during his presentation:

  • 2015 will be a year of field trials and a few commercial deployments.  Carriers will gather information and evaluate network and subscriber behavior during those trials.
  • 2016-2020 before operators deploy several SDN & NFV use cases, then more each year.  Commercial SDN/NFV deployment market will begin to ramp up (and vendors will start making money on the new technologies).
  • Infonetics includes SDN optimized network hardware in their view of 2020 Carrier Network architecture.  Distributed control, real-time analytics, policy inputs are characteristics of Centralized Control & Orchestration- to “control the controllers” in an end-to-end SDN based network.
  • NFV is all about moving implementation of carrier services from physical routers to Virtual Network Functions (VNFs), which run as software on commercial servers.*
  • Virtual Enterprise (vE)-CPE is top NFV use case for carrier revenue generation.

*  Note: The movement of services and associated functionality from hardware routers to VNFs that are implemented in software on commercially available compute servers is a very significant trend that appears to be gaining momentum and support.

Stephen Perrin of Heavy Reading wrote in a blog post: “Virtual routers in the WAN and NFV are tightly coupled trends. Routing functions are being virtualized in NFV, Operators are eyeing edge/access functions, at least initially; and key will be ensuring performance in virtualized networks.”


Infonetics found that some of the top carrier ranked service functions proposed for VNFs are: carrier grade Network Address Translation (NAT),  Content Delivery Network (CDN), IP-MPLS VPN & VPN termination, Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS) & Prevention (IPS), broadband remote access server (BRAS or B-RAS), firewall, load balancing, QoS support, Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), and WAN optimization controller.

Here is a supportive quote from Infonetics’ recent Service Provider Router Market Study:

“In our Routing, IP Edge, and Packet-Optical Strategies: Global Service Provider Survey, July, 2014, we interviewed router purchasing decision makers at 32 operators worldwide — incumbent, competitive, mobile, and cable operators from EMEA, Asia Pacific, North America, and CALA, that together control 41% of worldwide service provider capex.

In this survey, we focused on plans for moving router functions from physical routers to software (known as vRouters, which run on commercial servers); 100GE adoption; plans for P-OTS (packet-optical transport systems); and metro architectural changes typically embedded in NG-COs (next generation central offices—big telco Central Offices (COs) spread around a metro area).

In our first-time measure of the SDN-NFV hardware-focus to software-focus trend that affects the router market directly, 60% to 75% of respondents are either definitely or likely moving eight different functions from physical edge routers to software vRouters running on commercial servers in mini data centers in NG-COs. This will shift some edge router spending to software and NFV infrastructure, but will not replace the need for edge routers to handle traffic.”

MH post conference clarification: to be more exact, many of the network functions now running on physical routers will be moved to virtualized network functions, or VNFs, that run on commercial servers. The vRouter likely won’t include the VNFs.   This is just a terminology definition that is still being formed in the industry.

With 60% to 75% of routing functions being moved to VNFs running on commercial servers, it seems that the majority of SDN/NFV development efforts will be on the software side.  How then will hardware be optimized for SDN/NFV?

Some of the silicon hardware functions being proposed for SDN/NFV networks include: encryption, DPI, load balancing and QoS support.  Open Flow, on the other hand, won’t be implemented in hardware because a hardware based state machine wouldn’t be easy to change quickly.

How much hardware optimization is needed if generic processors are used to implement most vRouter functions?  While that’s an open question, it’s believed that hardware optimization is most needed at the network edge (that assumes dumb long haul pipes).

Intel’s DPDK (Data Plane Development Kit) was mentioned as a way to “speed up network intelligence of equipment.” [DPDK is a set of software libraries that can improve packet processing.]

Some open issues for successful network hardware placement and optimization include:

  • What dedicated network hardware functions, if any, will be put in a commercial compute server that’s hosting one or more vRouters?
  • What hardware/silicon functions will go into dedicated edge or core routers/switches?
  • Lack of visibility of QoS across mutiple network hops/nodes. How to ensure end to end QoS/SLAs?
  • How should QoS functions be partitioned between dedicated hardware (e.g. packet classification and priority queueing) vs. software implementation?
  • Will dongles be attached to commercial servers to monitor network performance?
  • What types of timing references and clocking are needed in vRouters and dedicated networking hardware?
  • How will NFV infrastructure be orchestrated, coordinated, and managed?

Summary & Conclusions:

  • Top drivers for operator investments in NFV (from Infonetics survey) are:
  1. Service agility to increase revenue
  2. Capex reduction (use commercial servers, not purpose-built network gear)
  3. More efficient and automated operations
  • Revenue from new or enhanced services is the top driver for SDN as well
  • PE (Provider Edge) router is under attack by virtual PE vRouters
  • Move services move from physical networking equipment to VNFs on servers
  • vE-CPE is top NFV use case for revenue generation

In closing, Mr. Howard stated:

“The move to SDN and NFV will change the way operators make equipment purchasing decisions, placing a greater focus on software. Though hardware will always be required, its functions will be refined, and the agility of services and operations will be driven by software.”

Author Alan Weissberger

By Alan Weissberger

Alan Weissberger is a renowned researcher in the telecommunications field. Having consulted for telcos, equipment manufacturers, semiconductor companies, large end users, venture capitalists and market research firms, we are fortunate to have his critical eye examining new technologies.

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