How Operator Constituencies are Groping the SDN/NFV Elephant

I often get emails on my blogs from network operators (and of course network vendors too, but those are another story).  One of the things I get from those emails that I find particularly fascinating is the difference in perspective on SDN and NFV between the pillars of power in operator organizations.  We talk all the time about what “operators” think or want, but the fact is that their thoughts and wants are not exactly organized.  Ask a given operator a question on their plans for SDN or NFV and you’ll get different pictures depending on who and where you touch, just like the classic joke of “groping the elephant” behind the screen and identifying the parts as trees, cliffs, snakes, etc.  I thought it might be interesting to sort the views out, particularly with some feedback on the comments I made in Tuesday’s blog.

One group of people, the “standards and CTO” people, see SDN and NFV as technology evolutions, primarily.  To their minds, the value proposition for them is either fairly well established or not particularly relevant to their own job descriptions, and the question is whether you can make the technologies work.  This group generally staffs the industry initiatives like the ONF and the NFV ISG, and they’re focused on defining the way that things work so that SDN and NFV can actually do what legacy technology already does, and more.

Within this group, SDN and NFV deployment is seen as something for 2018 to 2020, because it will take that long to go through the systematic changes in infrastructure that deployment of either would require.  SDN is generally seen as having an earlier application than NFV to this group of people, and also SDN is seen as requiring the smallest number of enhancements or changes to specifications to make it work.  Among the S&CTO crowd, almost 80% think SDN is already in the state needed for deployment.  NFV is seen as ready for deployment by less than half that number, though both technologies are thought to be ready for field trials.

The greatest challenge for both SDN and NFV is seen by the S&CTO group as “product availability.”  For SDN the feeling is that a mature controller from a credible source and switch/router products (including “white box” from credible sources will have to be available before full deployment would be considered.  The group sees vendors as dragging their feet, and in more than half the cases actively obstructing the standards process for both SDN and NFV.

The second group of people are the CIO and Business/Operations group.  This group believes that current activities for both SDN and NFV border on “science projects” because the linkage of the new technologies and their expected behaviors to OSS/BSS has not been effectively defined.  That means that from the perspective of CIO&O, the value proposition for SDN or NFV deployment is incomplete.

Whose fault is that?  Most everyone’s.  Three-quarters of the group think that the ONF and the NFV ISG have dropped the ball on management and operations integration.  They believe that proposing new infrastructure demands proposing effective management/operations models for it.  A bit smaller percentage thinks that the TMF has dropped the ball, and that the body has simply taken too long and showed to little insight in moving toward a better operations model.  Almost all of them blame vendors for what they see as the same-old-same-old attitude toward operations/management—let the other guy do it.

For this group, the biggest problem for SDN and NFV is the lack of a suitable operations framework to support the technologies themselves, much less to deliver on the scope of benefits most hope for.  One in nine think that SDN/NFV can be operationalized based on current specifications.  One in eleven think that operations efficiency benefits or service agility could even be delivered based on current ops models.  Almost exactly the same number think that vendors will have to advance their own solutions, and this group holds out the most hope for vendors who have OSS/BSS elements in their portfolios.

The third group is the CFO organization, and this group has very different views from both the other groups.  For CFOs, the problem isn’t and never was “SDN or NFV deployment” per se.  They don’t see technology deployment in a vacuum; it has to be linked to a systematic shift in business practices—what has been called “transformation”.

Transformation is apparently a cyclical process.  Operators’ CFO groups say that transformation has been going on for an average of a decade, though at first it was focused on “TDM to IP”.  It’s enlightening to hear what they think is the reason for cyclic transformation; Eight out of ten said the IP transformation didn’t deliver what they’d hoped for in terms of operations efficiency and service agility.  To many of these, the lesson is not to tie “transformation” as a goal to a specific technology realization.  Rather, you have to tie technologies to the goal.

That’s where the problem lies.  Fewer than one in twelve in the CFO group thought that SDN or NFV had a convincing link to transformation.  Interestingly, less than a third thought it was a priority to create such a link, which shows that CFOs and their direct reports are more interested in business results than in promoting technologies.  And if you press, more than half the CFO group thinks that the right approach to transformation should be “top down”, meaning it should focus on service lifecycles and operations and not on infrastructure.  Not surprisingly, this group tends to take an operations-centric view of the technology needed, and they also believe that vendors will have to play a key role in bringing the transformation about; standards are too slow.

The final group is Network Operations, the group responsible for ongoing management of the network.  This group (perhaps unsurprisingly) has the least cohesion in the views they express.  In the main, they see the issues of SDN and NFV to be in another group’s court for now.  However, I do get a couple of consistent comments from the operations group.

The first is that they believe that NFV and SDN are both more operationally complex than the alternatives and that there has been little or nothing done in trials or PoCs to address this.  At this point they’re seeing this as a pure network management problem not a customer care problem.

The second comment from operations is that vendors who supply traditional gear are telling their operations contacts that both SDN and NFV won’t roll out suitably until 2016.  There are no reports of vendors suggesting they consider SDN/NFV alternatives in current purchases, or consider holding back on deals to prevent being locked into an older technology.

If you dig through all this, there are a couple of themes that stand out.

First, operators themselves are not organizing their own teams around an NFV strategy and engaging all their constituencies.  Even where a group cites something that is clearly identified with another (CFO people and service lifecycle, for example) there is little or no attempt to coordinate the interests.  As a result, there is no unified view of either SDN or NFV across all the constituencies and no solid broad support for either concept.  Few operators are making SDN/NFV a cross-constituency priority, and some are planning “transformation” without any specific goal to employ either SDN or NFV in it.

Second, too much time has been and is being spent proving something nobody seems to doubt, which is the concept of NFV.  The problem is that the benefit case for SDN and NFV is necessarily cutting across all the groups, and nothing is really uniting them.  Most of this problem can be attributed to the relatively narrow scope of both SDN and NFV standardization; both are too limited to cover enough infrastructure and practices to make a convincing business case.

Third, this is getting way too complicated.  Even the CTO team thinks that the work of the respective standards bodies is making both SDN and NFV more complex and likely more expensive to implement.  Some operations people noted that they were being told to “forget five-nines” with traditional networks at the same time as the standards people were trying to insure that every aspect of reliability/availability was addressed through service definitions, redundant VNFs, failovers, and so forth.  They wonder how such a setup would ever even meet current costs, and those costs have to be lowered.

Vendors are finding themselves on the horns of a dilemma.  On the one hand, the current trials are too narrow to be likely to advance the cause of SDN or NFV.  One operator said that both technologies were at risk to becoming “the next ATM.”  On the other hand, an attempt by vendors to broaden the trials not only works against their primary CTO-group contacts’ interests, it introduces potential delay.  So do you rush forward to support an engagement that doesn’t have convincing backing or funding, or rush to the funding and potentially lose the engagement?

I think it’s truth time here.  Fewer than 15% of lab trials have historically resulted in deployment, so simple statistics say that just betting the current processes will lead to success through inertia alone seems risky.  Not only that, the current “benefit-and-justification gap” screams for a vendor who is willing to face reality, and once somebody prominent charts a course to real validation of the SDN/NFV business case, they’ll leap into a lead that may be hard for competitors to overcome.