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Survey finds bulk of service providers implementing SDN

A recent survey by IHS Markit finds that a majority of service providers are implementing SDN with an eye toward developing new managed services like SD-WAN.

It's no longer a question of if but when for carriers implementing SDN.

According to its fourth annual global carrier SDN strategies survey, IHS Markit, based in Englewood, Colo., found that 75% of service providers have already deployed or intend to deploy SDN in 2016, with 100% of operators expecting to implement the framework in the future.

For the past couple of years, SDN has been in a proof-of-concept phase, as operators and vendors test and run trials on the architecture. But as the IHS Markit survey indicated, carriers have been quick to embrace SDN, fueled in part by a thirst among operators to exploit their newly programmable foundations to offer managed services to enterprises. The survey was based on interviews with 28 service providers that control more than half the world's telecom capex, IHS Markit said.

Michael Howard, IHS Markit's senior research director for carrier networks, said revenue increases stemming from these types of services build strong business cases for SDN investments, which are due to better provisioning and delivery of services to end customers. Optimizing operations and reducing capital expenditure were other important motivators, he said at an IHS Markit webinar highlighting the survey's results.

Service providers are looking to SDN to transform their networks, operations and services, but they are leery of delving into SDN completely, due to its immaturity. The survey found that two primary barriers to implementing SDN were the lack of carrier-grade software and the difficulty of merging physical and virtual devices into existing networks.

Approaching SDN implementation

Because of the challenges, providers are approaching SDN in increments, testing the technology in specific areas of the network. "There are a lot of different parts to the carrier network and today, what that means is these individual segments of domains are being developed in proof of concepts and then put into actual practice," Howard said.

We're early in the stages of our SDN journey, and we're taking a very pragmatic kind of crawl-walk approach to ensure we're not outpacing the technology.
Art Nicholsvice president of network architecture and technology, Windstream Communications

Windstream Communications, a voice and data communications provider based in Little Rock, Ark., is taking a careful approach to implementing SDN -- beginning with basic transport SDN and moving up and across other areas of its network.

"We're early in the stages of our SDN journey, and we're taking a very pragmatic kind of crawl-walk approach to ensure we're not outpacing the technology in some sense or our availability to develop, operate and evolve it ourselves," said Art Nichols, Windstream's vice president of network architecture and technology, in the IHS Markit webinar. Formed out of a number of mergers and acquisitions, Windstream offers services in 21 states and is the ninth-largest residential services provider in the U.S.

When approaching SDN, Jim Metzler, founder and vice president at Ashton, Metzler & Associates, recommends a multistage process. Companies should research to see what's out there, figure out key questions to ask vendors and then choose appropriate vendors. The goal is to get to the proof-of-concept phase as quickly as possible, he said, so enterprises can figure out what works for them, start answering questions and begin building their business case.

SD-WAN on the rise

Regardless of the barriers to implementing SDN, the IHS Markit survey said 70% of operators are looking at virtual customer premises equipment (vCPE)-based managed services as the conduit through which they are offering SDN and associated network functions virtualization technologies. Among those services, software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) has sparked the most traction.

Service providers Verizon, CenturyLink and EarthLink are among carriers offering managed SD-WAN services. Masergy Communications, based in Plano, Texas, will offer a similar service later this year, using technology from Silver Peak Inc.

Companies don't necessarily have to implement SD-WAN at this point because it might not work for them, Metzler said. But the important thing is for them to at least look at the technology. "The world of the wide area network is changing, and it is not good to sit on the sidelines and say I'm not going to do anything about this," he said.

Managed SD-WAN services will fill a growing demand among enterprises for the technology. Gartner projected that 30% of enterprises will deploy SD-WAN by 2019, while Current Analysis Inc., based in Sterling, Va., said almost 60% of enterprises it polled will roll out SD-WAN by 2018. IHS Markit, in a study it conducted earlier this year, found that 82% of enterprises it surveyed will have SD-WAN connectivity in operation by 2018.

Next Steps

Learn about the benefits of SDN

SD-WAN and NFV bring changes to networks

Five reasons service providers might not adopt SDN

Dig Deeper on Software-defined networking