What SDN and NFV SHOULD Do Next

We’ve completed a couple of critical meetings in the NFV space (Team Action Week for the TMF and the regular quarterly ISG meeting) and we’re now facing an ONF event in the SDN space.  The NFV ISG has begun discussions on the “what next?” topic since its formal charter was to complete its specification work by January 2015.  Some of the comments that have been made on that question apply, I think, to the general situation in the world of telecom standards and technology evolution.

I’ve been a participant in carrier standards processes for decades, and one thing that’s been true from the first is that the processes presume a kind of supply-side mindset.  The standards activities presume that their goal is to develop the market, which implies that the market will wait for them.  In telecom in the Internet age, the problem is that we have a demand-driven market and at the same time the universal dialtone of the Internet over which at least some of it can be satisfied.  As a result, we see a clear separation of activities—things that relate to “opportunity” have tended to become disconnected from traditional standards practices while things that don’t still fit nicely.  Carriers, who still think in terms of standards, have thus hurt themselves by embracing progress in a form that’s not related to opportunity.

This mindset thing is important, I think, because even if we could identify specific things that carriers and carrier-oriented standards activities need to do to become more relevant, we can’t make the players adopt them if they have a belief set that’s fundamentally out of tune.  And that’s what I think faces both the NFV and SDN worlds right now.

What has made the Internet succeed isn’t standardization, it’s been innovation that’s driven the bus.  Innovation is inhibited by standards unless the standards frame agreed-upon foundations and leave a lot of room for evolution to address opportunities, and this rarely happens in the formal processes today.  The best search paradigm or best social network doesn’t emerge from standards, it emerges from people delivering something for use, from user experience, and finally from user selection among a reasonably large set of options.  That’s what the NFV and SDN worlds have to get to.  How to get there is the question.

My view is that the answer stares us all in the face.  What is needed to advance both SDN and NFV is implementation, meaning the proof-of-concept process.  Both the ONF and the NFV ISG encourage this sort of thing, but it’s my view that neither is driven by implementation even to the extent that the IETF is, and the IETF represents the body who has the process of standardization closest to right.  The questions at this point are whether we can have implementation-driven activities in either area at this late stage, and if so how we could drive them.

My view on the NFV process has never wavered from the comments I made as soon as the Call for Action was released in October 2012.  It is critical that there be an implementation, a prototype, developed for any useful standard to emerge, because only the evolution of such a prototype can provide real field experience with the technical tradeoffs that are inevitable in standardizing something.  The NFV process has gone a long way without that, and in the SDN world we’ve created a prototype that addresses only a small and largely unambiguous piece of the total functional picture—the “SDN Controller”—and ignored most of the knotty questions north of that famous set of northbound APIs.    As a result, we have a set of conceptions on how SDN and NFV must work that have yet to be proved to be optimal or even practical.  In fact, it’s my opinion that we’re only now beginning to have discussions in both the SDN and NFV spaces that should have been fundamental to the nature of both processes.

We can’t go back and undo the past, but I do have a message for both the SDN and NFV people; it’s time to focus on implementation, to the point where even the nature of the work done already becomes subordinate to that which implementation can teach.  We should, in NFV for example, say that every PoC is to be aimed at disproving what’s been specified at least as much as at proving it.  We should be pushing the boundaries of all our assumptions to insure that we’ve addressed the right problems and in the optimum way.  If we do that, we can create standards or specifications that will do the best for the market that we can do.  If we do our best, address the opportunities in the optimum way, then we leave nothing on the table in terms of benefits and drive the most effective evolution of the network—whether SDN or NFV is driving it.  If we don’t somehow test out and either promote or reject all our assumptions, then we’re letting a bunch of theory drive a market evolution, and we already know from the OTT world that isn’t going to work at all.

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