IP Meets Software
Take Aways from MPLS+SDN+NFV World Congress 2018
A few weeks ago I was at the 20th edition of MPLS + SDN + NFV World 2018 in Paris. At first glance, it looked like the previous 10 or 15 MPLS World congress events that I have been to. All the vendors were in their usual locations, MEF were doing their traditional workshops on the first day and the EANTC were generating their usual level interest with an Interoperability showcase.
The MPLS event has reflected the behaviours of the packet transport industry since its inception in 1998, and as such has been deeply technical with a focus on the hardware required to transport packet services. Indeed, I can still remember the 10th edition where there were huge debates and exchanges on the panels about what transport protocol is best: IP/MPLS, T-MPLS, PBT and PBB. I am really not kidding when I say the exchanges between advocates of one protocol over another were incredibly heated, almost violent.
This protocol debate, to a large extent, drowned out the discussions around how to backhaul the soon to be deployed 4G mobile networks. Over the next few years not much changed in terms of the hardware focus of the industry and hence the event. Although in 2012, in an event dominated by discussions about IP/MPLS vs MPLS-TP late on day one, we had a taste of the future with a 30 minute session on centralized Path Computation Elements and OpenFlow. The next change occurred a few years back with increasing debate around SDN and NFV. The event even added SDN and NFV to its name.
For the past two years the event has been focused on the SD-WAN “point solution”, with the solution moving from a theory to a deployed reality incredibly rapidly. In the meantime SDN (and to a lesser extent NFV) has continued to chug along the hype cycle without much apparent change or actual progress towards wide scale deployment.
So back to this year. SD-WAN is a done, with various solutions from various vendors, no need to focus on this. But after this two year hiatus, the event focus has not reverted back to its traditional hardware home, instead it has become much more software centric. The booths in the exhibition abound with software messaging; intent-driven, agility, adaptability, empowered, containerized, open, simplification, optimization, automation, orchestration are the software focused buzzwords. The focus areas for the conference itself were automation and 5G mobile transport, and even the 5G area had a large software focus.
So why the shift to a software focus?
In the last two years, SDN has moved through the “trough of disillusionment” in the hype cycle and we are now at the beginning of the “slope of enlightenment”, with the key to moving up this slope being the operations software. All the ‘smarts’ around what SDN can bring are in the software. The hardware provides an agile, well instrumented, programmable set of assets on which the software is able to deliver increasingly complex, dynamic services.
With 5G we have the first real test of the values that SDN can bring. For 5G networks to reach their full potential, they must allow Mobile Network Operators to evolve from being ‘mobile broadband providers’ to become ‘Universal Service Providers’. This means that the 5G network must support business critical services for enterprises; mission critical services for strategic industries; real-time, low latency, high availability services like AR/VR and autonomous cars; and of course super-fast mobile broadband. The only time efficient way of supporting this diverse range of services is with autonomous, dynamic, software controlled, network slices.
The packet transport network provides the agile, dynamic, connectivity fabric from radio to core that is fundamental in allowing the creation of these diverse network slices. The software takes the parameters and policies required to deliver each service type and computes the network resources, capacity and connectivity required to meet these service parameters and policies. The software must then track the service and network lifecycles to ensure that the network continues to maintain efficient delivery of the service.
However 5G is only the start; we are starting to see the demand for dynamic business services where users pay for what they use and have the ability to modify their connectivity and capacity, in real time. We see residential users wanting to seamlessly switch between fixed and mobile access, heralding true fixed mobile convergence (FMC). And strategic and critical industries must modernize their networks to incorporate smart IoT devices allowing real time command and control of resources.
The IP network provides the elastic asset pool required to support this service revolution, however it is only the software that can provide the dynamism and automation required to orchestrate the agile cost efficient delivery of these new real time services. Given this, it hardly surprising that a diehard IP technical show has now embraced the value that software can bring.