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Adtran Connect 2017: The Software-Defined Future of the Network

CenturyLink, Comcast and Verizon execs agreed at ADTRAN Connect: The future of networking is software.

August 16, 2017

7 Min Read
Network

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Kevin Casey

By Kevin Casey for Channel Partners

ADTRAN CONNECT — If you want to sum up Adtran Connect 2017 in a word, try: “software.” As in: software-defined access and the future of the network.

There were plenty of related keywords, too: open, programmable, platform. And, of course, more than enough networking acronyms and terms, including the likes of: NG-PON2, G.fast, FTTH and the two-character giant that seems to loom ever larger over the network universe these days, 5G.

No matter the acronym or lingo, no matter your point of view on SDN, fiber or the coming 5G era, here’s one thing just about everyone at Adtran seemed to agree on: The demand for high-quality broadband continues to skyrocket and shows no sign of ebbing anytime soon. Just as the broader IT industry continues to undergo transformative change as a result of tectonic technological changes, the networking business is in an evolutionary stage as it adapts to best serve a seemingly insatiable appetite for high-speed broadband access and other market demands.

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Adtran’s Tom Stanton

“We believe we’re at a pivotal point in our industry,” said Tom Stanton, Adtran’s chairman and CEO, welcoming Tuesday morning’s audience, which included 129 network operators. “We’re in an industry that is significantly different than what we grew up with.”

Obviously, every network will not become software-defined overnight, perhaps especially when it comes to large, longstanding operators with considerable investments in legacy networks. And there will continue to be a range of specific use cases and needs operators must serve across varying markets, such as in rural areas or multiple dwelling units, or the demands of a business versus a homeowner.  But software is playing an increasing role in the industry as a whole, and operators themselves, just like the businesses and consumers they serve, are in the midst of a considerable digital transformation.

Take CenturyLink: The third-largest telecom company is itself evolving for a platform-centric, software-defined future driven in large part by that unquenchable thirst for faster and faster network speeds. In his keynote address, CenturyLink EVP and CTO Aamir Hussain shared a pair of priorities for the company: “First, get as much speed out there as possible. Second, transform the network to a software-defined, virtual experience that really provides digitization to our customer base.”

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A mix of current and coming factors, from AR/VR to OTT services to IoT and sensors to 5G, are helping turbocharge that demand for faster and faster broadband speeds. And customer expectations of network operators have never been higher, Hussain noted.

He even shared an anecdote from the uber-connected, resource-intensive world of gamers: “We have customers who …

… call us and ask: ‘Can you please reduce our latency by 10 milliseconds?’ Gamers are getting very, very advanced. They know exactly what network to get on, and they actually go blog about that.” Moreover, Hussain says, this extrapolates out the wider customer base — you don’t need to be a hardcore gamer to have stringent expectations these days.

No, CenturyLink is not converting its entire network into an SDN tonight, or tomorrow. But Hussain says the company is slowly but surely morphing into a “platform for everyone,” a hybrid IT platform-centric approach that is more open, programmable, and automated.

During a day of concurrent breakout sessions for analysts and press, Adtran executives shared updates on the company’s own transformation and portfolio, and software was again a major player. Stanton shared, for instance, that 10 Tier 1 operators are currently trialing or using the company’s Mosaic software for SD access. Later, Jay Wilson, Adtran’s SVP for technology and strategy, noted that the firm, whose bread and butter has historically been in hardware, has been placing a significantly increasing emphasis on software.

“We’ve put a lot of investment in our company to be better at software,” Wilson said, adding that they’ve even adopted software-development trends such as continuous delivery in-house.

Among the related news Adtran revealed at the Connect event:

  • The company announced a Broadband Subscriber Management Suite for Mosaic that intends to help providers get out of the costly broad network gateway (BNG) router game in favor of software-centric tools that move subscriber management out toward the network’s edge. The suite joins Adtran’s Software Defined Service Edge portfolio.

  • CenturyLink has deployed a field trial of Adtran’s virtualized OTL 10G-PON software-defined access solution, a stepping stone (and U.S.-first deployment) in the software-oriented transformation Hussain described in his keynote.

  • Adtran announced it has successfully demonstrated non-service-impacting wavelength agility and ultra-low latency with its NG-PON2 solution, claiming a first in the NG-PON2 universe. The milestone is a key stop on the road to 5G and the proliferation of IoT sensors and devices, since it enables the reliability and resiliency necessary to support service-level agreements (SLAs) for even the most demanding applications. Previous PON tech was built for fiber-to-home deployments – not for 5G and the IoT era – and is not typically considered robust enough to meet SLA requirements.

  • Adtran is rolling out a Gigabit Accelerator Program designed to help service providers kick-start gigabit delivery, especially to rural areas. The program includes gigabit fiber-to-the-home starter kit, installation services, training, marketing support and access to gigabit community partners.

  • Managed services providers might take heed of the addition of the NG Firewall Powered by Untangle to ADTRAN’s existing ProCloud Subscription Services Suite, as a complement to the current menu of ProCloud Security offerings. The ProCloud suite is specifically designed to be delivered via MSP to end business customers with limited IT resources; Untangle is a cybersecurity firm that focuses on the “below enterprise” market, meaning: just about every kind of organization that fits the “limited IT resources” bill, from small businesses to schools and more.

  • Adtran’s services unit is rolling out SD-Access Accelerator, a bundle of software-defined access system-integration services with customizable Residential-Central Office Re-Architected- as-a- Datacenter (R-CORD) Point of Delivery (PoD) systems. (How’s that for acronyms?)

And, oh yeah, what about that whole 5G thing? It seemed to hover near much of the Tuesday discussion, and at times …

… took center stage. One thing that most folks seem to agree with: There’s plenty that remains unknown with 5G, beyond: “It’s coming.”

That might be especially true relative to fiber investments. Rob Howald, Comcast VP of network architecture, fielding a question following his presentation on “The Future of MSO/Cable Access,” said Comcast is thinking plenty about 5G even as it continues to push fiber deeper into its footprint. In other words: The two certainly aren’t mutually exclusive, but there will likely be impacts.

Earlier in the day, Verizon’s director of network planning, Vincent O’Byrne, who’d shared the company’s NG-PON2 road map en route to 10 gigabit speeds and beyond, fielded a more pointed question from the audience: Will 5G cannibalize the residential fiber market? O’Byrne pointed out there’s still much to be determined about 5G, especially around cost structure, not to mention when and where it will be deployed.

In his keynote, Hussain said that, today, wireless data generated via mobile devices – and increasingly other connected devices, aka IoT – pass an enormous amount of data through CenturyLink’s network, and fiber is key. That’s actually a big challenge for operators like CenturyLink (and a story for another day), but it points to the intersections between wireline and wireless connections that aren’t likely to wash away in the 5G era.

In other words: Don’t expect fiber to go away anytime soon. Definitely expect, on the other hand, to increasingly hear the word “software” in networking contexts going forward. Some pretty big names are betting on it.

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