Getting SDN and NFV Up to Speed

My research has been showing a relatively slow uptake rate on SDN and NFV, slower than many would like to believe, and I thought it would be helpful to understand why the model I use is predicting a slow ramp rather than the classic “analyst report” hockey stick adoption.  The truth is often less interesting than fiction, but no less true for that fact!  Surveys of both enterprises and network operators for more than two decades have showed me that there are three factors that influence the rate of adoption of a new technology.

One is the functional availability of the technology—can you actually buy it in a form where it delivers the promised benefits.  In most cases, our “revolutionary” technologies take years to achieve reasonably full functional availability, and yet we expect to see buyers jumping in when product changes year over year would alone jeopardize a buyer decision.

The second factor is buyer literacy.  We don’t expect everyone who buys a car to be an automotive engineer, but we should expect them to be able to frame the basic value proposition for purchase successfully.  A network technology buyer has to understand the cost/benefit equation sufficiently to make the business case or they can’t get anything approved.

The third factor is management validation; will senior management accept that a new technology is in fact ready for prime time and take what is always an objective risk by committing to deploy it?  In most cases, I’ve found, management validation comes about because of effective coverage of something in the media.

The challenge with both SDN and NFV is that none of these areas have reached critical mass.  Only the “distributed” model of SDN where network adaptive behavior is sustained but better harnessed to conform to software goals do we have the required level of functionality available before 2016.  That means that buyers with typical breadths of application needs won’t be able to meet them with the state of the products at the time of sale; they’d be betting on futures.  My model says that the big jumps in functional availability will come between 2016 and 2017.  In SDN buyer literacy, critical mass has been reached for all operators but won’t be reached for enterprises until 2018.  In management validation, operators can expect to have the necessary socialization of technology for SDN in 2014, but enterprises won’t see it until 2016.  With NFV, only Tier One and Two operators will achieve necessary levels of literacy by 2018, and functional availability and management validation will come in 2017.

You might wonder why this takes so long, and the primary reason comes from what my survey has always called buyer influences.  What influences a buyer the most?  For the whole lifetime of my surveys, the number one factor has been the experience of a trusted peer.  At the beginning of the surveys, the second-most-cited influence was the material published in a primary technology publication—Datamation, BCR, Network Magazine.  Two of the three no longer exist, and today media rates seventh on the list of influential factors even counting online material.  What’s worse is that the gap of influence between the top and second choices in influence has widened.  Today, the primary network vendor has less than half the influence of a trusted peer where 20 years ago they had 85% the influence.  Every influence factor except our trusted peers has dipped by at least a third in 20 years, which says that buyers have virtually nobody to trust these days.

In some ways, this should make things ripe for startups, but the fact is that it doesn’t.  Small vendors won’t spend the money to engage correctly through marketing channels.  When we ask buyers about the quality of website material and marketing material, nobody gets great scores but the major vendors to twice as well as the smaller ones.  When there are trade groups or forums created to mass up the little guys, the bigger guys join them and seize control, or buck them with their own marketing.

We have, according to my spring survey, no consensus buyer definition of what an SDN is, no specific understanding of what technology choices would be ideal to implement NFV.  We have in the case of SDN many different products but the products don’t aim at the same issues, don’t address the same opportunities, don’t afford the same benefits.  How then do we justify them?  In the case of NFV we might be 18 months away from a firm standard; what happens between now and then, and how does a buyer make a pre-standard decision (if they can find one) with confidence it won’t be obsolete a year later?

I am confident that there are sustainable SDN value propositions that could justify spending today at twice or more the levels that we’ll see.  I am confident that it will be possible to actually deploy NFV next year and gain even more benefits than the NFV ISG even targeted in their white paper.  I’m just not confident the buyers will know.

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