SDN and NFV are Not For Critical Industries Yet – Right ?
Over the last few years we have heard much talk about what software defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) can bring to the telco space. In the early days, the main advantage was thought centre around cost reduction, however it is now realized that SDN and NFV increase service velocity and improve service flexibility. With the value that SDN and NFV bring, they are now an inevitable in the telco network, it is just a matter of when they will become mainstream components of the service provider’s transmission network.
However when we consider to the telecoms infrastructure used by “industrial sector” (utilities, transportation and public services) the discussions are very different. In most cases, the general consensus is that these industries don’t need or aren’t ready for SDN or NFV anytime soon and that the network needs and size aren’t really suitable for SDN and NFV.
However, having spent much of the last couple of months talking to people in these industries and I am starting to believe that need for SDN and NFV maybe a lot closer than most people realize. Although the values these technologies bring to the industrial sector are different to those seen in the telco sector.
To appreciate the values that these technologies can bring to the industrial sector one must first consider the needs of the industries themselves. Whilst each industry in the sector is very different, there are some common themes that run across them.
- The communications networks are or have already reached end of life.
- Modern techniques used to improve safety, carbon efficiency and customer/employee satisfaction require the network to be digitized to support a vast increase in the volume of data generated from sensors in the network
- The communications network is instrumental in helping improve cyber security
- Mission critical operations technology (OT) is responsible for keeping the network running
- An IT network is run separately from the OT network to provide business critical and general communications.
When one thinks about it, it is not surprising that NFV and SDN can bring value to the IT network. The business operations in these industries supported by the IT network is virtually identical to enterprises served by the telcos and as such the benefits provided by increased service velocity and flexibility are the same. In addition, these networks are being asked to provide increasingly sophisticated information and entertainment systems and for customers and employees. And in the case of rail and air the networks must also provide connectivity and consumer information to the businesses operating in the terminal buildings. NFV provides the ability to use service chaining to rapidly add new capabilities to these systems as and when they are required.
Surprisingly, the need for SDN and NFV in the OT network is even clearer. This is because the OT network is undergoing a paradigm shift. In the past the OT network was relatively static, with its main purpose being to support low speed protocols like SCADA and Teleprotection. However we are in the middle of a rapid evolution of the OT network. A vast number of sensors and actuators are now being deployed to allow operations to fully understand how the pipelines, highways, airways, etc. are behaving.
We see HD video being used to constantly monitor rail tracks, roads, substations etc. the data is remotely analyzed, in real time, to spot any potential safety or performance issues. In addition site staff visiting incidents are being equipped with HD cameras to allow control room staff the fully see what is happening in the field. A packet network is required support these capabilities efficiently, however traditional packet networks do not provide TDM grade predictability and deterministic performance required to transport the SCADA and Teleprotection.
SDN provides a solution. With centralized control it gives packet networks the predictability and deterministic performance required to support SCADA, Teleprotection. In addition, SDN provides the capability to re-purpose network capacity, so in the event of a catastrophic incident, network non-mission critical capacity can re-allocated to the emergency services and incident control teams. With SDN being used to redirect control data we could even see remote towers used by one airport being used to provide disaster recovery for the remote tower of another airport.
Finally, NFV provides the ability to add, modify and change functionality deep in the network, this is particularly important for improving network security. For network security to be effective, it is essential that up-to-date firewalls and anomaly detection is employed at a point of access as close to the sensors and actuators as possible. Putting NFV infrastructure at the first aggregation point achieves this by allowing firewalls and anomaly detection to be deployed as virtual network functions (VNFs) at the edge of the network.
I believe the value that SDN and NFV can bring to the industrial sector is compelling and hence its use in this sector is inevitable. I see SDN and NFV technology initially being deployed to provide point solutions for specific operational and business issues, before it is used to help.