Software-Defined Networking: A Telecom-Centric Perspective
                           Adwait Aralkar

Today, telecom operators are looking at technological ways to gain a competitive advantage and retain clients, while customers are expecting personalized experiences. Dynamic, easily manageable, and cost-effective, a new disruptive technology emerged to meet the increasing demands of the telecom industry.

An Overview of SDN 

In the last two decades, the increased traffic & scrutiny as well as the lowering ARPU have forced telecom operators to search for better technology alternatives. Software-defined Networking (SDN) emerged as a new approach to network management.

Challenges faced by the Telecom industry that SDN is solving: 

  • Decentralized Network Management – expensive & time-consuming to deploy, needs multiple servers to be configured and is prone to security issues due to process errors.
  • Complex operations, leading to higher OPEX – quick customer assistance, millions of subscribers with a plethora of customized products, and huge contact centers.
  • Multiple network policies – multiple network management policies reduce the efficiency of operations and applications and increase the workload of network administrators.
  • Cybersecurity – the security of public-facing and corporate data parallelly is critical.

The Technology

SDN is an architecture designed to make a network more flexible and easier to manage. It centralizes management by separating the control plane from the distributed data plane. It enables dynamic programmatically efficient network configuration to improve network monitoring, making it ‘more like cloud computing’ than traditional network management.

SDN as a Technology in the Telecom Industry

The separate planes in SDN allow organizations to procure software and hardware from multiple vendors to have customized network services, infrastructure, and solutions.

It also serves as the foundation of ‘virtualized networking’ as a business modelSome other applications & solutions include SD-WANs, WANs, data centers, and campus networks. 

SDN started with ‘OpenFlow Protocol’, but some other ‘variants’ caught market traction. For example:

  1. Juniper Contrail’ is an SDN platform that automates the creation and management of virtual networks. It lets us connect, isolate, and secure workloads in both private and public clouds. It is widely used in multi-cluster environments, like complex campuses and data centers.
  2. Nokia’s ‘Nuage’ has applications like multi-cloud SD-WAN 2.0 that offers intelligent traffic flow & encryption.
  3. Another highly successful SDN solution is the ‘VMware NSX Suite’, which provides agility through automation & security. NSX also reproduces the entire network model in software, thereby helping to create and provision any network topology in seconds and delivering critical apps and services faster.


Benefits of SDN Adoption in the Telecom Industry

  • Simplified policy changes – Single intent or policy-based network management is used, allowing for simpler provisioning and management of networked resources along with a unified view.
  • Simplified operations – Programmable networks capable of auto-discovery and configuration switches.
  • Network Management and Transparency – The network administrator need to handle only one centralized controller.
  • Faster troubleshooting & maintenance – Insights from network analytics and predictive models using ML help improve the network’s overall health.
  • Improved cybersecurity – Zero trust access, policy-based segmentation.
  • Reduced Hardware footprint and OPEX – Hardware and services are virtualized.

64% of data centers have adopted SDN, followed by 58% WANs & 40% access networks, with the Telecom and BFSI industries leading the adoption of SDN.


The market growth of SDN is projected at a CAGR of 17.2% during the forecast period: 2022 – 2032, with a projected valuation of USD 95B by 2032.

Innovations using SDN in Telecom 

1. Telecom vendors & tech companies are continuously innovating and pairing SDN with ‘Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) – which has proven to be a key solution for emerging needs.

Decoupled Network functions can run in software to accelerate service innovation and provisioning, particularly within service provider environments such as the public cloud. It reduces complex hardware dependency.

For example, Verizon uses SDN to combine all its existing (service) edge routers for Ethernet and IP-based services into one platform. It aims to simplify the edge architecture, enabling it to enhance operational efficiency and flexibility to support new functions and services.

2. NaaS

NaaSNetwork-as-a-Service (NaaS) leverages the network itself to create business value and relies on SDN as the ‘foundation technology’. NaaS is basically a cloud service model in which customers rent networking services from cloud providers. It has the potential to replace VPNs and legacy network configurations. It can aid the modernization of legacy/on-premises networking hardware.

This creates higher business opportunities for Digital Transformation & IT solutions vendors.

Challenges to SDN adoption

  • Security – The centralized SDN controller presents a single point of failure and, if targeted by an attacker, can prove detrimental to the network.
  • Unclear definition & understanding – The industry has no established definition of SDN. Different vendors offer various approaches to SDN, ranging from hardware-centric models and virtualization platforms to hyper-converged networking designs and controllerless methods.
  • Market & Tech confusion – Some networking initiatives are often mistaken for SDN, including white box networking, network automation, and programmable networking.


The Way Forward Toward SDN Adoption 

Mobile operators are interested in mature, limited-risk technologies that optimize the use of scarce and expensive wireless resources. SDN fits the requirements perfectly, and hence requires higher buy-in from CIOs. Operators are also looking at SDN to increase the flexibility of introducing new service bundles faster in the future. The inherent traits of SDN allow operators to innovate inside their domain without having to depend on OTT service providers to support their innovations. Despite scoring high on flexibility and versatility, SDN raises significant scalability, performance, and robustness challenges. Hence further innovation and research are pivotal in the coming years to improve adoption across industries.

About the Author


Adwait Aralkar

 Working as a Consultant, Product & Platform Engineering at Brillio. Business & Presales Consultant, MBA graduate from NMIMS with a Marketing major and Strategy minor. Experience in Business Design, market research, stakeholder management, branding & marketing strategy & Industry Analysis across various small stints.

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