Driving faster, smarter networks with SDN

Mobile networks are facing an explosive increase in data traffic driven by both business and consumer demand for the fastest possible delivery of data-rich content. The onslaught of bandwidth-hungry applications and services such as video streaming, internet browsing and file downloads is seeing mobile operators worldwide grappling with the challenge of managing the impact of these services on their network without it affecting customer service.

Rootmetrics recently conducted a study into mobile operator networks across the UK and USA testing call performance, text reliability, network speed, coverage, and mobile internet. All of the networks improved over the last year but whilst most categories were a close battle, in the UK EE consistently came top of the charts. With the rise of M2M and the Internet of Things (IoT) set to increase pressure on networks further still, operators are facing a real test to ensure they guarantee a consistently smooth experience for their end users.

The good news is that previous investment in legacy systems doesn’t have to be wasted – new, cloud-based solutions can provide a layer on top of existing infrastructure and allow the much needed agility for innovation cycles. In the long-term, business models are challenged by the pressure to build to network capacity.

Software Defined Networking (SDN) is generating a lot of excitement and comes to the industry at just the right time. By abstracting control from forwarding, SDN gives network operators more flexible and more responsive central control of network traffic through a programmable network, alleviating the pressures on capex investment while at the same time providing an avenue for new revenue opportunities.

SDN comes in many forms. The easiest to understand is the SDN used with optical networks, where there are switches in charge of processing and redirecting the incoming light streams of data. Previously the control functions were built into the hardware, but now they are being designed with broader and more flexible functions as part of the controlling software communicating between the two devices to instruct them on what they need to do with the data.  This capability can be extended to Ethernet switching, IP routing, and any other technology that the operator wants to enable with this enhanced functionality.

The result is an intelligent software-led network that is more efficient at transmitting data. SDN provides a cost-effective way to maximise the current transmission infrastructure of service operators and bridge the gap before the next level of technology transmission becomes available.  It also provides a much better way to have the network adapt to the myriad of new applications that are emerging, and to monetize then network in a way that meets the needs of these applications.

We’re already seeing indications of a major boom in the SDN market in the coming years. Global analyst firm IDC recently predicted the SDN market will increase 733% from $960 million (about £578 million, $1.03 billion) to more than $8 billion (about £4.82 billion, AU$8.60 billion) by 2018.

From a customer service perspective, the biggest opportunity that SDN provides is through the rapid availability of new and innovative products and services. An open SDN environment has huge potential for both users and operators. It can drive innovation at an unprecedented pace by enabling the rapid and easy introduction of new functions and applications written by network vendors, third-party developers, and even the operators themselves.

The wealth of benefits offered by SDN will see it quickly become a core part of the foundation of any efficient, adaptive network. As the growth of data-intensive applications and the emergence of new technologies continue to snowball, mobile operators will have to find answers to ever-increasing demand from businesses and consumers.

Building this foundation won’t happen overnight but the sooner operators take the initial steps on the SDN ladder, the more likely they will be able to create more efficient, agile and scalable transport infrastructures that will help them deliver customer service that sets them apart from their competitors.

Do you think SDN will help provide the solution for new innovation cycles? Let us know in the comments.

To learn more about the Internet of Things visit IoT Tech Expo Europe in London's Olympia, 2-3 December, 2015. 

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