As always, PTC in Hawaii was a great event to kick off the year. It looks like 2016 will be a crucial time for software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) and this was reflected in the program for PTC’16. There were three SDN/NFV-focused sessions (compared with only one last year), including the panel discussion that I took part in. It turned out to be a fascinating and very lively roundtable debate chaired by Joe Weinman, author of Cloudonomics and Digital Disciplines. Along with panellists from Ciena and BTI Systems, I discussed the implications of SDN/NFV for cloud and network service providers. Here’s a few of the main points I took from our debate:

We’ve Traveled a Long Way in a Short Space of Time

One of the things that struck me during the talk was how far SDN and NFV have progressed in the three years since the drive to decouple software from hardware really began. Even twelve months ago at PTC’15, we were only able to discuss quite basic proofs of concept. Since then, the technology has advanced considerably. The machines themselves have now arrived and vendors are beginning to offer genuine virtual network functions (VNFs) in the form of firewalls, WAN accelerators, etc.

The Biggest Barrier to NFV Becoming Mainstream is No Longer Technological

Early in the discussion, I suggested that the next substantial change really has to be on the operator side. What we now need to see is how carriers are going to handle the shift to a software-focused operations approach. How quickly will these enormous organizations be able to adapt and begin training their workforce in an entirely new way? When “the man in the van” goes from installing and replacing boxes to fixing VNFs, he won’t need the van any more. What he will need is a new set of skills.  Vital as this is, though, I’m yet to see much movement from the big operators.

Will NFV Really Plug Straight Into Existing APIs?

ADVA Optical Networking’s Prayson Pate pointed out another challenge that operators now face. As well as retooling their workforce, they’ll have to consider how their systems are going to handle the change. Will we be able to plug NFV directly into their well-established business or operational support systems or will we somehow have to conform to old application programming interfaces? When it comes to virtualizing procedures like inventory and billing, how much of the infrastructure is going to have to alter? The consensus view at the roundtable discussion seemed to be that, at least in the short term, we’ll have to try to fit in with what operators already have.

Openness is Essential but It Comes at a Price

There was widespread agreement about the value of an open multi-vendor approach to NFV-based networking. People seemed to understand that having the ability to select different vendors with specific capabilities enables providers to create the optimum overall solution. And, with a software-based approach, it’s far easier to make the switch when a new and superior option appears. However, there were strong concerns to do with how openness impacts reliability and service assurance. I also raised the issue of trouble-shooting. Deciding who’s responsible for fixing issues becomes far more problematic in a virtual environment. There were no obvious silver bullets for this problem and it’ll certainly be an area for further discussion.

Big Players Are Pushing but Smaller Companies Will Be First to Benefit

At one point is was suggested that progress is likely to be slower as the big players are not yet driving SDN and NFV. I disagreed on this. From the vendor side, we feel that the big players are most certainly pushing for virtualization. That’s what creates the impetus for vendors and makes them focus on this space. That’s where the drive comes for investment such as ADVA Optical Networking’s recent purchase of Overture. I pointed out, however, that it will be the smaller operators who’ll be the first adopters. After all, it’s a lot easier to turn around a racing boat than an oil tanker. That’s why companies who have the agility to make the transition stand to benefit most in the near future. Likewise, virtualizing particular services on a trial basis has a much smaller risk profile when there’s no contract with a customer directly involved. So we’re likely to see internal rather than external services being the first to make the leap.

What was clear from the debate and from the whole of PTC’16 was that NFV and SDN are now at the top of the agenda for network operators. And when the theme of virtualization is so central at an operator-led conference like this, it suggests that the rapid progress of SDN and NFV is unlikely to slow down any time soon.