Category Archives: ETSI

Software defined WAN (SD-WAN) is really about Intelligence ..

Lets admit that most of us in the networking domain know as much about SD-WAN as an average 6th grader on sex — which is to say pretty much nothing. We take it as something much grander and exotic than what it really is and are obviously surrounded by friends and well-wishers who wink conspiratorially that they “know it all” and consider themselves on an intellectual high ground to educate us on matters of this rich and riveting biological social interaction. Like most others in that tender and impressionable age, i did get swayed by what i heard and its only later that i was able to sort things out in my head, till it all became somewhat clear.

The proverbial clock’s wound backwards and i experience that feeling of deja-vu each time i read an article on SD-WAN that either extols its virtues or vilifies it as something that has always existed and is being speciously served on a platter dressed up as something that it is not. And like the big boys then, there are men who-know-it-all, who have already written SD-WAN off as something that has always existed and really presents nothing new here. Clearly, i disagree with that view.

I presume, perhaps a trifle rashly, that you are already aware of basic concepts of SDN and NFV (and this) and hence wouldnt waste any more oxygen explaining those.

So what really is the SD-WAN technology and the precise problem that its trying to solve?

SD-WAN is a way of architecting, designing and deploying enterprise WANs using commodity Internet connections in a manner that makes those “magically” appear as a private “MPLS-like” connection. Its the claim that it can appear “MPLS-like” that really peeves the regular-big-mpls-vendors-and-consultants. I will delve into the “MPLS-like” aspect a little later, so please hold on to your sabers till then. What makes the “magic” work is the control plane that implements and enforces the network access policies (VOIP is high priority/low latency/low jitter, big data sync medium priority and all else low priority, no VOIP via Afghanistan, etc) and the data plane that weaves an L2/L3 overlay on top of the existing consumer-grade Internet links (broadband links and in a few cases the LTE/4G connections).

The SD-WAN evangelists want to wean enterprises off their dedicated prohibitively priced private WAN connections (read MPLS circuits) with commodity enterprise broadband links. Philosophically, adding a new branch should just mean shipping a CPE device (perhaps in a virtualized form-factor) that auto-magically dials into a central controller when brought to life. Once thats done and the credentials verified, the branch should just come online (viola!) and should be visible to all the geo-separated branches. Contrast this with the provisioning time (can go as high as a year in some remote locations) and the complexity it takes to get a remote branch online today with MPLS and you will understand why most IT folks have ulcers and are perennially on anti-anxiety/depressant medicines. And btw we’ve not even begun talking about the expenses and long term contracts with the MPLS connections here!

Typically SD-WAN solutions have a central SDN controller which is really a cluster of x86 devices (servers, VMs, containers, take your pick) and hence has computing and analytical horsepower much more than a dedicated HW network device. The controller has complete visibility right from the source all the way till the destination and can constantly analyze traffic and can carve out optimal network paths for applications and individual flows based on the user and application policies. In the first mile the Internet links are either coalesced to form a fatter pipe or are used separately as dictated by the customer policies. The customer traffic is continuously finger-printed and is routed dynamically based on the real time network conditions.

Where most people go wrong is when they believe that SD-WAN solutions lose control over the traffic once it leaves the customer premises or the SD-WAN edge node. Bear in mind that there is nothing in the SD-WAN technology that prevents further control over how the traffic is routed and this could perhaps be one aspect differentiating one SD-WAN offering from the other. Since SD-WAN is an overlay technology you will not have control over each physical hop, but you can surely do something more nuanced given the application and end-to-end network visibility that exists with the controller.


Its “MPLS-like” in the sense that you can, in most cases, guarantee the available bandwidth and network up time. The central controller can monitor each overlay circuit for loss/jitter/delay and can take corrective actions when routing traffic. Patently enterprise broadband connections in certain geographies dont come with the same level of reliability as MPLS and it behooves upon us to ask ourselves if we need that level of reliability (given the cost that we pay for such connections). An enterprise can always hedge its risks by commissioning a few backup enterprise broadband connections for those rainy days when the primary is out cold. Alternatively, enterprises can go in for a hybrid approach where they maintain a low bandwidth MPLS connection for their mission-critical traffic and use the SD-WAN solution for everything else OR can implement a policy to revert to the MPLS connection when the Internet connections are not working satisfactorily. This can also provide a plausible transition strategy to the enterprises who may not be comfortable switching to SD-WANs given that the technology is still relatively new.

And do note that even MPLS connections go down, so its really not fair to say that SD-WAN solutions stand on tenuous grounds with regard to the reliability. Yes i concede that there are SLAs given with MPLS that just dont exist with regular Internet pipes. However,  one could argue that you can get some bit of extra reliability by throwing in an additional Internet link (with a different provider?) thats only there as a standby. Also note that with service providers now giving fiber connections, the size and the quality of Internet links is only going to improve with time. A large site for instance can aggregate a 1Gbps Google Fiber and a 1Gbps Verizon FIOS connection and can retain a small MPLS connection as the standby. If the enterprise discovers that its MPLS connection is underutilized it can negotiate on pricing or can go with lower MPLS pipe and thereby save on its costs.

I recently read a blog which argued that enterprise broadband promising 350Mbps would mostly give only around 320Mbps on an average. Sure this might be true in a few geographies, but seriously, who cares? Given the cost difference between a broadband connection and an MPLS circuit i will gladly assume that i only had a 300Mbps connection and derive utmost pleasure any time it gives me anything more than that!

The central controller in the SD-WAN technologies amongst other things (analyzing traffic, links) can also continually learn about the customer network conditions and can predict when link qualities will deteriorate and can preemptively reroute traffic before the links start acting up. Given that the controller is monitoring paths end-to-end and is also monitoring and analyzing the traffic emanating from the branch sites there are insights that enterprises can draw that they could have never imagined when using traditional WAN architectures since in that world all connections are really only “dumb pipes”. SD-WAN changes all that — it changes how the enterprise connections and the applications running there are viewed. The WAN architecture is aligned to the application service requirements and its management is greatly simplified. You can implement complex network policies and let the SD-WAN infrastructure sweat on your behalf (HINT: intent driven networking).

So watch out before you disdainfully write off SD-WAN as a technology thats merely replacing your dumb MPLS pipes with the regular Internet connections, since i argue, it can really do a lot more than that. Perhaps a topic worth discussing some other day.

NFV – CPE vendors MUST evolve!

Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) devices have always been a pain point for the service providers. One, they need to be installed in large large numbers (surely you remember the truck rolls that need to be sent out), and second, and more importantly, they get complex and costlier with time. As services and technology evolve, these need to be replaced with something more uglier and meaner than what existed before. In a large network, managing all the CPEs — right from the configuration, activation, monitoring, upgrading and efficiently adding more services – in itself becomes a full time job (and not the one with utmost satisfaction i must add).

Hate CPEs

ETSI’s Use case #2 describes how the CPE device can be virtualized. The idea is to replace the physical CPEs with all the services it supports on an industry standard server that is and cheaper and easier to manage. Doing this can reduce the number and complexity of the CPE devices that need to be installed at the customer sites.

The jury is still out on the specific functions that can be moved out of the CPE. Clearly, what everybody agrees to is a need for a device that will physically connect the customer to the network. There will hence always be a device at the customer premises. If we can virtualize most of the things that a CPE does, then this device could be a plain L2 switch that takes packets from the customers and pushes those towards the network side.

So what do we gain by CPE virtualization?

You reduce the number of devices deployed at customer premises. Most enterprise customers when adding new services add more devices beyond the access point/demarcation device or NID. If the functions serviced by those devices can be virtualized, then you dont need to add those extra devices.

In residential markets, we can completely remove the set-top boxes (including storage for video recorders) and the layer 3 functions provided by home gateways as these functions can be virtualized (on standard servers driven by highly scalable cloud-based software) , leaving each home with a plain L2 switch. This apparently is already underway as we speak.

Since each site has a vanilla L2 switch, you dont need to replace it till its potent enough to handle the incoming traffic onslaught. Since all the intelligence resides in the standard server, it can easily be replaced/upgraded without involving the dreaded truck rolls.

Truck rolls

Your engineers dont have to visit customer premises for upgrades. Since most of the services are hosted over the cloud, all upgrades happen at the hosting location or the data center. Even if the virtualized services are deployed at the customer premises, you dont have to upgrade each CPE device. Its only the server at the customer premises that needs an upgrade.

Newer services and applications can be easily introduced, since those can be tested out at the hosting location or the data center. You dont have to worry about trying it out on all the different CPE devices. Barrier to entry in the network has suddenly lowered since the legacy CPE equipment doesnt need to be replaced. Also helps avoid vendor lock-in if all CPE devices are plain L2 switches and all the “work” is being done in SW on the standard servers.

Scaling up becomes less of a headache. BGP routers, as they start scaling, run out of control plane memory much before they hit the data plane limits. If the control plane has been virtualized, then its much easier to address this problem vis-a-vis when BGP is running on physical routers.

There are several vendors pushing for CPE virtualization. If you’re a CPE vendor who believes that your services are far too complex to be virtualized, then beware that things are moving very fast in the NFV space. I had earlier posted about how virtual routers can replace the existing harware here. Its fairly easy to imagine CPEs going virtual — from being high end devices to easily commoditized L2 switches! So if you dont evolve fast, then you run the risk of getting extinct!

NFV and SDN – The death knell for the huge clunky routers?

Last IETF i ran into a couple of hallway discussions where the folks were having a lively debate on whether Network Function Virtualization (NFV) and Software Defined Networking (SDN) will eventually sound the death knell for huge clunky hardware vendors like Cisco, Juniper, Alcatel-Lucent, etc. I was quickly apprised about some Wall Street analyst’s report that projected a significant drop in Cisco’s revenue over the next couple of years as service providers moved to SDN and NFV solutions . I heard claims about how physical routers (that i so lovingly build in AlaLu) will get replaced by virtual routers (vRouters) and other server based software that even small startups could build. The barrier to entry in the service provider markets had suddenly been lowered and the monopoly of the big 3 was being ominously challenged. There was talk about capex spending reduction happening in the service provider networks and how a few operators were holding on to their purchase orders to see how the SDN and NFV story unfurled. There was then a different camp that believed that while SDN and NFV promised several things, it would take time before things got really deployed and started affecting capex spending and OEM’s revenues.

So whats the deal?

Based on my conversation with several folks actively looking into SDN/NFV and a good bit of reading I understand that operators are NOT interested in replacing their edge aggregation and core routers with software driven vRouters. They still want to continue with those huge clunky beasts with full control plane intelligence embedded alongside their  packet pushing data plane. These routers are required to respond to network events in real time (remember FRR?) to prevent outages and slowdowns. Despite all performance improvements the general purpose processors can typically process not more than 2-3 Gbps per core (Intel with DPDK module and APIs for Open Virtual Switch promises better throughput) which is embarrassingly slow when compared to the throughput of 400-600 Gbps thats possible with NPUs and ASICs today. Additionally routers using non-ethernet ports (DSL, PON, Coherent Optical, etc)  cannot be easily virtualized since the general purpose CPUs cannot perform the network functions along with the DSP components required to support these ports.

So while a mobile gateway that essentially forwards packets can be virtualized, it would only make sense to do this where the amount of traffic its handling is relatively small.

So where can we deploy these NFV controlled server based vRouters?

The Provider Edge (PE) routers does several things today, few of which could be easily moved out to be implemented on standard server hardware. ETSI’s NFV Use cases document (case #2)  identifies vPE as a potential NFV use case. The “PE” routers in the MPLS world connects the customer edge (CE) router at the customer premises to the P routers in the provider network. The PE router serves as the service delimiter where it provides L3 VPNs, VPLS, VLL, CDNs and other services to the customers.

The ETSI NFV use-case document (case #2) describes how enterprises are deploying multiple services in branch offices; several of these enterprises use dedicated standalone appliances to provide these services (firewalls, IDS/IPS, WAN optimization, etc), which is “cost prohibitive, inflexible, slow to install and difficult to maintain”.

As a result, many enterprises are looking at outsourcing the virtualization of enterprise CPE (access router) into the operator’s network.

Increased capex and opex pressure is edging enterprises and providers to look at virtualization capabilities made possible by NFV. So, lets look at what all can be virtualized by NFV.

The ETSI NFV use-case document states that “Traditional IP routers  based on custom hardware and software are amongst the most capital-intensive portions of service-provider infrastructure. PE routers run out of control plane resources before they run out of data plane resources and virtualization of control plane functions improves scalability.”

It further states that moving some of the control plane to equivalent functionality implemented in standard commercial servers deploying NFV can result in significant savings.

The figure below gives an idea of the components that can be moved out of the PE router and onto an NFV-powered server.

Network functions/services that can be offloaded from the PE router

Network functions/services that can be offloaded from the PE router

If we’re able to push out the functions/services shown in the figure above, the PE router effectively gets reduced to a router thats mainly pushing the packets out and vPE, the device for service delivery. NFV appears to be most effective at the edge of the network where customers are served — this also happens to be mostly ethernet, which works in the favor of NFV since other ports cannot be served as effectively.

Operators believe NFV can be used for mobile packet core functions for 3G and EPC. LTE operators believe that while basic packet pushing functions must still reside in the routers, the other ancillary functions that have been added to the routers over the time are good candidates for NFV. We can keep BRAS, firewalls, IDS, WAN optimizers, and other service functions separate and use the physical router for merely transferring the packets.

Clearly, the vPE can handle many network functions that are currently done by the conventional physical routers. While the PE may still handle pushing the packets, the intelligence for many of the services typically handled by the PE can be moved to vPE. This is a paradigm shift from what the PE routers have been doing all this while. The network functions and services that can be moved to vPE are:

  • Mobile packet core functions for 3G and LTE EPC
  • Firewalls (FW) and IDS/IPS (Intrusion Detection and Intrusion Prevention systems)
  • Deep Packet Inspection (DPI)
  • CDNs (content delivery networks) and caching
  • IP VPNs – control plane to set up the MPLS VPNs
  • VLLs and VPLS – control plane to set up the MPLS VPNs

These functions can be virtualized to run either on the servers under NFV or can be SDN controlled. Where these reside in the network will depend upon the QoS and QoE (Quality of Experience) required by the customers. If latency and speed is an issue, the functions should reside in servers close to the customers. But if latency is not an issue the functions could reside deep in the provider network or a remote data center.


Operators will deploy NFV and SDN, which will impact their buying decisions. Its clear that they will not be replacing their core and  edge aggregation routers with NFV driven software solutions. Instead, NFV will be used at the edge to offload service functions from the HW PE router onto servers with vPE in the NFV environment to deliver new services agilely to end users and generate higher revenue.

There is thus no need for the Ciscos, Junipers and Alalu’s of the world to worry about falling revenues since the NFV powered solutions are not targeting their highest margain businesses — at least not yet!