Network Transformation in 2020: 6 Trends to Watch

Photo: Futuristic network

In the network transformation community, we’re now at the stage where we can look back as well as forward. Every year at the SDN NFV World Congress, we see more and more case studies among the sessions, and every implementation adds an extra layer to the story.

So what will the first year of the new decade bring? We’ve asked those shaping network transformation what they expect in 2020, whether dramatic change or unexpected continuity – starting with SDN’s new life under the hood.

1. SDN and NFV: a new life under the hood.

The SDN journey has been an interesting one – and where we are not is not necessarily where we thought we would be back in 2012-2013. Both SDN and NFV promised a lot, and have certainly transformed how we think about running our networks, but there is still a sense of what might have been – the investments and buy-in for full transformation were so high that few operators have succeeded with the promised ‘big bang’ to put clear blue water between the network and control planes. The successes we have seen have been brought about gradually – KPN’s phased approach is a great example, as is the staged Domain 2.0 project from AT&T, now in its seventh year. Trying to ‘boil the ocean’ has been a problem.

But SDN and NFV have taken on a new lease of life. It’s not just carriers and operators that are enjoying the benefits network decoupling and virtualisation brings – SDN, NFV and VNFs are thriving under the hood of some brand new applications. It’s fast becoming clear that whatever the industry or use, applications like 5G, IoT, AI and especially SD-WAN cannot function unless the networks they are based on are virtualised and software-defined.

On the vendor side, network programmability will continue to contribute to disaggregation in 2020, with programmable functionality helping move functions from general-purpose CPU. “Network programmability will align well with this move towards disaggregation,” said Roy Chua of AvidThink. “New vendors are using cloud-based designs in distributed routers, as well as disaggregated L4 to 7 functions – and programmable merchant silicon as well as FPGA assist will play an increasingly important role, especially at the edge.”

Watch Roy Chua’s World Congress 2019 presentation here.

2. A focus on the business case

The network transformation conversation has long been about ensuring proof of concept. In 2020, it’s all about proof of value.

This was a noticeable trend at the 2019 SDN NFV World Congress. More and more presentations are focusing on the tangible benefits that SDN and NFV bring to the bottom line of a business – taking the conversation from the drawing board to the balance sheet.

“We’ve moved beyond talking about whether we should adopt SDN and NFV or not,” said Verizon’s VP of Product Management and Development Victoria Lonker in her keynote presentation at The Hague in 2019. “The answer is yes – we’ve done it, we’ve implemented it, and now we’re moving on and bringing together all these themes around digital transformation, orchestration, and so on, to deliver to customers a true application experience that enables them to have business transformation.

“And this business transformation ultimately delivers business outcomes.”

This means that while it’s as important as ever to make sure the designs, programs and solutions are delivering on the technical level, in 2020 it will no longer be enough to virtualise or automate for the sake of it.

This is the focus area of Layer123’s 360° Network Automation Congress – with an entire stream dedicated to the commerciality of network automation and presentations from PCCW Global, amongst others, on how to translate the technical benefits of automation into financial gains.

Watch Victoria Lonker’s World Congress 2019 presentation here.

3. More SD-WAN in enterprise.

SDN and NFV are making SD-WAN easier, cheaper and more effective – and the enterprise world is taking advantage.

At the WAN Summit in London in October 2019, an event for the enterprise networking community, network managers in attendance were surveyed onsite and reported strong uptake for SD-WAN. 21% of the audience said they had already implemented some version of SD-WAN within their organisations, 41% are piloting or rolling one out, and a further 20% are in the vendor search process. Crucially, every single respondent said they were at least planning to adopt SD-WAN at some point.

The global SD-WAN situation is also promising. Research firm TeleGeography produced a WAN Manager Survey in 2019, which surveyed enterprises with a median revenue of $10 billion. They found that 43% of these enterprises are in the installation or pilot phase, while 83% are considering SD-WAN adoption for their organisations.

SD-WAN providers, both incumbent carriers and SD-WAN specialists, are scrambling to meet the demand, and this is driving the multi-cloud story as well. If they are going to bring the networks of enormous, global organisations away from server rooms and onto the network, they will need elegant, powerful and efficient network solutions – which SDN, NFV and network automation will be able to provide.

Watch the Panel Discussion: The rise of managed services and Multivendor SD-WAN here.

4. NFV goes to the edge – gradually.

Edge computing accounts for a growing share of conference presentations, case studies and proof of concepts – but in 2020, we should take reports of an edge explosion with a pinch of salt.

That is not to say the demand isn’t there, of course. Equinix’s latest Global Interconnection Index report forecasts a 51% growth year on year in installed interconnection bandwidth capacity between now and 2022, with fierce growth predicted in areas at the forefront of edge and IoT like manufacturing (57%), content and digital media (41%) and cloud and IT services (41%). In addition, true use cases do exist, particularly in the German industrial sector – industrial controls firm Limtronik and power and climate control company Rittal are two companies that are already running production lines or management solutions with edge computing.

However, for at least the next 12 months, growth in actual edge capacity may not match the expectations. “While we are cautiously optimistic about the explosion of the edge, true use cases are still limited to CDNs, group gaming, video, and industrial controls,” says Roy Chua. “Applications that require super-low latency and significant processing at the edge are few and far between – in many cases, a regional data centre sub-10ms or 20ms ping time away will suffice.”

There will still be progress – and Equinix’s January 2020 acquisition of Packet is a sign of where the wind is blowing – but actual edge deployment may not keep up with the hype in 2020.

5. The optical layer: slow and steady progress.

Again, there’s nothing dramatic here – but an important area under the hood of network operations that is steadily progressing is the optical layer.

“The optical layer is developing – not necessarily at a surprising pace, but it is progressing and important for several reasons,” says Roy Rubenstein, editor of optical community resource hub Gazettabyte. “The optical network layer is undergoing change: the line systems that are used to send huge amounts of data over fibre are being opened up including the optics at links’ end. The coherent chips used to send data over fibre networks are sophisticated devices; they collect and process data to produce key performance metrics regarding the health of the network. Combined with analysis software, this can give operators a heads-up regarding signs of degradation in the network and allows them to adapt accordingly.

“These processes are becoming mature, decision-making is becoming automated and for the big optical equipment makers, that now sell their optics openly on the market, it is a way to differentiate their technology. And given how hardware is becoming commoditised, even optics, the ability to differentiate is welcome.”

6. Network automation increasing in scope.

According to AvidThink’s Next-Gen Network Automation Report published in 2019, ‘Network automation is simply the application of software design and engineering to network configuration, management and monitoring.” But there’s nothing simple about the process for many carriers – network automation has been applied inconsistently and with varying results across networks, with some areas (particularly SD-WAN) seeing better progress than others (data centre usage).

However, 2020 is likely to see operators continue their steady progress down the network automation path. One of the greatest strengths of network automation is that it can be done process by process, without risking costly downtime, and there are several carriers that, having succeeded in creating reusable components and libraries and building them into rule-driven processes, are now taking the next step towards true, closed-loop automation.

Take STC as an example – the Saudi national operator is starting to see the benefits of a carefully planned network automation strategy, as VP of Telecom Thamir Alhammad told delegates at the SDN NFV World Congress 2019. STC started by preparing for automation not just technologically but culturally as well – creating new roles, implementing new responsibilities, and building a culture of automation across the organisation. Now, STC is benefiting from this groundwork to greatly increase network automation in 2020 and beyond.

You can watch Thamir Alhammad’s World Congress 2019 presentation here.

Expect to see similar stories this year at the Layer123 World Congress 2020: Service Evolution Beyond SDN and NFV as network automation truly gathers pace.