The world today is more connected than ever before. With the rapid expansion in access to computers and the internet and the explosion of the mobile platform, network infrastructures are under more pressure than ever before to meet this apparently insatiable demand for connectivity. As a result, Service Providers (SPs) are being forced to constantly enhance their networks to keep pace with the persistent growth in demand for capacity. To support these initiatives, many are forced to consistently go out to market in search of recent advancements in networking technology and associated next-gen management tools and assess whether they can be applied to the benefit of their networks.

At a basic level, service providers can, of course, opt to meet any elevated capacity demands through the addition of cabling and active equipment. This, however, does not accurately address consumer demands as they become increasing mobile, and as such networks need to become more dynamic as subscribers move across the network. Adding capacity at one node is, therefore, a pointless tactic because it only addresses the specific demands of its attached users; the additional capacity will be lost as and when users move to an adjacent cell.

Therefore, SPs are faced with a dilemma: either add capacity to all the impacted nodes to meet anticipated network demand or “move” bandwidth around the network. The former pushes SPs to create ‘over capacity’, where capacity at each node is more than necessary and surplus capacity may be spread across the network. The latter option, on the other hand, is a complex process which demands a comprehensive understanding of recent network capacity trends across both timeframes and locations.

Additional issues can also arise from network-intensive businesses and more mature domestic consumers, both of whom are increasingly moving their data and IT services into the cloud. This requires SPs to manage such data more efficiently by ensuring its networking priority meets agreed business service levels agreements (SLA’s), and providing high customer satisfaction to their demanding user community.

One mooted solution, the ‘self-optimization’ of networks, is a practice which can enable the management of network capacity but tends to be reactive rather than proactive. However, it can potentially create an environment within a complex network where capacity is in state of constant flux, as it attempts to manage real-time demands by interacting with other active network equipment.

So by adopting a proactive understanding of the shifting demands placed on network capacity by timeframe and location, SPs can dramatically improve their ability to efficiently manage capacity and accurately expand network capacity to match actual demands, rather than considering more generic capacity needs.

This is where a potentially revolutionary methodology comes in – that of Software-Defined Networks (SDN), whereby the network can be dynamically and automatically configured to respond to changing conditions and demands across the network.

The initial steps towards SDN

There have already been some successful deployments of SDN in the technology’s early stages, for example in data centres and for certain aspects of SPs’ business routing. It revolves around the concept of a routing table where specific services can be routed based on pre-defined parameters – for instance, an organisation’s cloud CRM service could be routed over a faster network route during normal office hours (a period of higher demand), and then the route changed after this time to a standard network.

This benefits the organisation because they know their mission-critical systems can operate at high speeds at peak times, and benefits the SP through the provision of a premium service. In this situation, the SP is providing one service with two or more possible routing table entries, and the option to switch the entries between one another on the relevant time parameter (i.e. between peak and off-peak).

In these initial stages both situations are easy to manage, as there is a limited and readily controlled set of network parameters. The whole concept starts to become more complex however as we begin to switch routes for a large number of services within a larger and more complex network topology.

Role of Analytics

Given the complexity SDN can cause, many SPs have begun to use network analytics in order to model and accurately contrast the capacity of their network with the amount used at node level within a specific timeframes. The resultant analytics models are subsequently used as the framework for any SDN implementation, because they provide SPs and app developers with the insight and ability to develop alternative routing models which match ever-changing network demands. In the future, there’s no doubt that there will be a role for the integration of real-time analytics and SDN, because it will allow the majority of network optimisation to be performed in real-time. Of course, this would have to include a pre-determined set of boundaries for such optimisation in order to prevent over-compensation – for example, in the event of an outage or a network burst.

Conclusion

The introduction of SDN into SPs’ networks will, if appropriately planned, provide them with un-heard of levels of flexible capacity. But as with any new technology and methodology, this comes with a caveat – that SPs can only achieve this flexibility by fully understanding and modelling network capacity, and subsequently developing appropriate SDN scenarios to ensure the ongoing integrity of capacity.

Not only will SDN provide SPs with the opportunity to refine their networks, but it will also allow for the implementation of network scenarios in anticipation of scheduled events (such as major sports events) and unscheduled events and put in place specific network configurations to respond to any such situations.

Overall, SDN is going to dramatically change to way we manage our networks, especially as they become more complex, and we will see SDN deployments continue to evolve in accordance with the evolution of their underlying networks. In the future it will be used in ways we can’t even imagine as the SDN tools mature and organisations, especially those in the cloud, adapt applications to take advantage of SDN.