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Software-defined access networks: how to get past the “how?”

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“The move to SDN and cloud is the kind of access network transformation that only happens once every 20 years,” said Sandy Motley in a recent blog. So, it’s perhaps understandable that operators are still a bit uncertain how to go about it. The benefits of software-defined access networks (SDAN) are definitely worth the effort: cost savings, new revenues and increased agility are all up for grabs.

However, each phase of a SDAN transformation presents operators with brand-new challenges or learning opportunities. The key ones are: an upfront assessment that defines the transformation path and quantifies the benefits; rethinking how to build a network that sustains a hybrid virtual-legacy SDAN environment and makes the most of new intent-based networking concepts; and how to operate the network using agile software delivery methods. Let’s take a look at each of these.

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Quantify your benefits and define your path

The planning phase needs a comprehensive assessment that both de-risks and accelerates the project. First to consider is a transition path and, when it comes to a project like this, operators are rightfully pragmatists. A tactical deployment of SDAN when expanding geographically or deploying a new technology like XGS-PON is often a good introduction, ringfencing the implementation from other operations while building expertise. Considering and then modeling specific use cases is an essential part of the assessment, and the best way to quantify the benefits of an implementation. Using our TCO modeling we’ve seen that automating routine FCAPS tasks alone can save in the region of 25-40% of OPEX. In this planning phase, it’s beneficial to have an outside perspective: with our experience working with many operators we can offer use cases, best practices, and a way to benchmark your transition strategy against others.

Build SDAN your way

Irrespective of the chosen path, software-defined networking introduces far more flexibility, customizability, and vendor choice in how to build the network. This requires a disciplined systems integration approach to tie together (and keep together) all the elements in a working solution. Cloud access components must not only fit with legacy access components, but also with the operator’s wider cloud strategy. In SDAN, multivendor gets a new dimension. Old-school vertical integration and monolithic management give way to vendor-agnostic integration and holistic management. In this environment, all network nodes—3rd party, virtual and legacy—need to find their place, and operators must be prepared to maintain a hybrid virtual-traditional network for a significant period. In the end, the more legacy nodes that can be SDN-enabled, the greater the benefits gained from simplified management, programmability and automation. This requires services and software migration from legacy to new, and automated migration services can ensure a smooth transition with fewer iterations.

Speaking of automation, intent-based networking, a new powerful and hugely beneficial SDAN automation concept, helps with the integration into the OSS layer through the abstraction of device-specific variations. Each operator has specific operational needs and opportunities for intents—for example, configuring G.fast nodes, or fulfilling a customer service request—and while some may come out of the box in a SDAN solution, others will need to be customized or created from scratch. This is a new skill operators need to hire or acquire.

Deliver new features, faster

Once implemented, a software-defined access network unlocks IT-like speed in deploying new features through agile software development and DevOps. However, it’s one thing to develop and test for a single vendor system; access networks are often multivendor environments where it’s the sum of all components that counts. Multivendor DevOps need automation and a disciplined, end-to-end, software and solution integration approach. This calls for a closer working relationship between vendors and operators to make sure customers get a solution that carries on working. This is another new skill for many, but we’re beginning to see this agile way of working emerge where operators ditch the yearly release cycles for more frequent releases to test and market new features faster.

Fortune favors the brave, they say. And while SDAN is a brave new world for operators, it’s not nearly as scary as it seems—with the right partner. We’ve been investing in our SDAN Integration and Migration Operations Centers to provide the support needed throughout an SDAN transformation. With 1500+ services experts, 65+ successful network transformation projects under our belt, and our unique tools and processes, we can smooth your path to SDN-enabled networking.

You can learn more about our Services portfolio here.

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Stef van Aarle

About Stef van Aarle

Stef leads the Services business for Fixed Networks at Nokia. He’s been “at the service” of the telecoms industry for over 30 years, which is why he’s so adept at helping our customers transition their networks to the latest broadband infrastructure and software-defined networking. Stef is very in demand on the speaker circuit, which is fortunate as he also loves travel. When not on the road or in the air, he plays music and coaches a field-hockey team.

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