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NEC’s Gerald Feeney on Software Defined Networking and how it will change your business forever

ITProPortal interviewed Gerald Feeney, Director of Solution Delivery at NEC on one of the hottest topics in enterprise, Software Defined Network. Check out how SDN and Openflow could radically change the way businesses manage data, become more efficient, reduce operational costs and what organisations can do to facilitate its implementation.

1. What is NEC’s view of SDN (Software Defined Network) and Openflow?

NEC believes that Software Defined Networking (SDN) is fundamentally changing networking. This new model for building networks allows enterprises, carriers and service providers to overcome the challenges associated with legacy networks. In addition, network virtualisation enabled by SDN, as exemplified by the OpenFlow standard, promises far-reaching changes in the IT world.

2. How does the company see this initiative developing?

Traditional networking hardware is a closed inflexible architecture, which cannot be changed or modified easily by the customer. Our vision is to open up the hardware used in networks, allowing custom applications to be run on it thus increasing the responsiveness, flexibility and efficiency. Such a network, where the functionality is configured and controlled by software is the fundamental principle of SDN. As capacity is required or become redundant, resources can then be brought into or taken out of play, thereby maximising the investment made by an enterprise or carrier in the network.

OpenFlow, an open source SDN protocol, provides a platform on which such an open architecture can run, making networks as flexible as the rest of the data centre, and able to respond to the changing demands. We are looking forward to a day when programs running on an open architecture network can provide the operators with a system capable of discovering its own capacity, analysing its strengths and weaknesses, and using intelligence-based programs to work out optimal routes for traffic flowing through it. Such an intelligent network could use centralised control to automate many network lifecycle management functions.

3. What will NEC’s role be in the SDN market over the next couple of years?

We are recognised globally as a big player in the SDN movement, as well as a leading contributor to the Open Network Foundation (ONF) and other standards bodies. In addition, NEC was the first to launch commercial SDN/OpenFlow solutions for datacentre and enterprise networks. Moving forward, we are bringing our experience in the datacentre space to carrier transport networks. This will enable operators to reduce costs with improved virtualisation, visualisation and asset utilisation as well as rapidly generate new revenue streams through innovative new services.

Our carrier grade SDN Controller will support a “Telco” grade network operating system, offering an API to developers to innovate at the application layer - but on the carrier’s platform so that the carrier retains a stake in the value chain for new services. NEC is also working towards the move to Network Function Virtualisation (NFV). This technology will enable operators to deploy best-in-class software solutions for virtualised network functions, and ride the Intel performance curve for processing capacity in the network, instead of being restricted to proprietary solutions from traditional vendors.

4. What are, in a nutshell, the main advantages that SDN brings to the table?

The network is the key challenge for data centres. SDN provides a simplified and open infrastructure for data centre and cloud networks which in turn helps them to achieve significant gains in automation, while driving down operational costs and time to deliver new services.

Carrier SDN provides additional value to the end-user, service provider and Telecom carriers. For end users it delivers additional security, quality of service and price differentiation. For service providers it allows fair usage charging, high availability and manageability and for carriers, it lowers the OPEX and CAPEX. We estimate that SDN can reduce the OPEX for the datacentre by 50 per cent with simplified, centralised management and with the streamlined operations for network expansion and change.

5. What are the obstacles, in NEC’s views, that's hampering the growth of SDN?

The barriers to adoption of SDN are common to any new technology, namely immature standards, immature technology and skills shortages. However, in the datacentre space, it is expected that SDN will rapidly become the new norm. Once the cost and operational benefits become clear to all stakeholders, then there should be no significant barriers to uptake of SDN in carrier networks. Indeed, the early adopters are already planning trials with a view to production deployments. However, it is clear that hybrid solutions will be needed for smooth migration from legacy installations to SDN architectures, which is central to NEC’s product roadmap.

6. What technologies is NEC working on to provide an SDN solution?

We are currently developing a Software Defined Carrier Network product that will provide virtual networks with the characteristics required for public network services and customised network services. For example, a Video service virtual network provides real time performance and a Data Service virtual network can be best effort and less expensive. In time, service providers will be able to configure different characteristics in their virtualised networks. In addition, NEC is developing Carrier SDN solutions for Mobile Core, Broadband Service Edge, Packet/Optical Transport and Traffic Management System (TMS).

For example, we are going to launch the “Virtualized Evolved Packet Core (vEPC)”, a virtualized mobile core solution. NEC has developed an EPC to run on COTS servers; functionality which used to be run on proprietary custom hardware. To ensure Carrier Grade performance and reliability, we have developed a carrier grade hypervisor. When additional system resources are needed, the system resource controller and OpenFlow controller manages the resource pool to add new VMs for additional resource for easy scale-out.

7. How are telecom operators and enterprises implementing NEC’s “Programmable Flow” solutions?

A major international ICT provider, NTT Communications, is using ProgrammableFlow technology on nine sites in eight countries. Operating data centres around the world providing cloud services, NTT Communications must be ready to reconfigure the resources used by its customers in quasi real-time. With ProgrammableFlow technology, a logical centralised controller can reconfigure a worldwide network to provide a client with a virtual “data centre” almost immediately.

Another big player, logistics operator Nippon Express, has seen considerable savings in capital expenditure and operational expenses. We estimate that, on average, for a 1,000-server data centre, both capital and operational expenditure can be slashed by 50 per cent compared to conventional networks. Nippon Express has been able to cut its network switch rack space requirements from 32U to 10U, and thereby power consumption, from 14kW to 2.5kW, and perhaps most dramatically, has been able to bring its network management in-house, with the benefit that outsourcing services were no longer required. Not only have costs been reduced, but also the speed of response following a network outage has been cut from nearly one minute to one second.

At Kanazawa University Hospital, ProgrammableFlow has brought other benefits. In the medical networking field, flexibility of ports and switches is vital as equipment used for patient diagnosis and treatment is frequently moved, and the different departments using the equipment have varied network security policies, as do the different devices themselves. Moving or adding such network-connected equipment effectively was previously extremely difficult. Now, through the implementation of ProgrammableFlow, when a medical device is connected to the LAN, it is assigned to the appropriate virtual network, and the appropriate policies are automatically applied. This occurs regardless of the LAN port to which the device is connected, thus providing with real plug-and-play.

8. What are the issues to bear in mind when adopting SDN?

For carrier transport SDN deployments, the following issues should be taken into consideration:

Availability: While there are always going to be new failure scenarios with virtualised network architectures, detection of the root causes of failures will be more complex. However, SDN aids this by bringing new redundancy and resiliency methods.

Scalability: An OpenFlow switch fabric can be designed to support large numbers of traffic flow. For example: Edge switches could handle large numbers of fine granular flows and Core switches could handle a smaller number of aggregated flows. How best to scale the SDN Controller for transaction processing capacity would depend on use-cases and architecture.

Standards: Common pre-requisites for network virtualisation in mixed vendor networks will be needed.

Migration from legacy infrastructure to SDN architectures should be also considered. We are addressing this challenge with hybrid switching fabric products in conjunction with SDN control plane, traffic management and OSS/BSS solutions to achieve smooth migration.

9. How does NEC see SDN evolving over the next five years?

Though NEC sees data centres providing co-hosting services as our main current market, we think that our future users will increasingly be enterprise-level data centres, and communications carriers. A wider community of service providers and network users will see benefits from the savings and advantages to be realised from the new technology.

One example of these benefits in action would be following a disaster or any other major event. There is usually a big spike in voice and SMS traffic and a possible overload of the system as callers re-assure each other of their safety and try to keep in contact. Using ProgrammableFlow networking, a carrier’s resources and bandwidth could be diverted dynamically, away from media provision services, and into the voice/texting services, which then have sufficient capacity to handle the increased demands.

Although carriers are traditionally understandably cautious when adopting new ideas, the early adopters are already in the evaluation and test phases and we are anticipating that the new revenue opportunities and savings through operational efficiencies will see a drive in SDN uptake. We also anticipate that carriers will deploy SDN in their existing networks, not just in greenfield networks

10. Could you tell us how SDN underpins M2M/Internet of Things?

SDN architecture enables operators to optimise M2M service delivery to enterprise customers with virtualisation, analytics, and resource automation software. We are expecting the number of M2M terminals to grow to significant numbers and our virtualised EPC (vEPC) will enable operators to rapidly deploy and scale M2M services without the burden of heavy investment in heavy-weight cabinet infrastructure.

Desire worked at ITProPortal right at the beginning and was instrumental in turning it into the leading publication we all know and love today. He then moved on to be the Editor of TechRadarPro - a position he still holds - and has recently been reunited with ITProPortal since Future Publishing's acquisition of Net Communities.