Industry Voices—Raynovich: SDN and NFV aren’t dead; they became SD-WAN

Alphabet soup is one of the painful realities of the tech industry. We live or die by references to APIs, SDN, NFV, and SD-WAN. Lately, there has been a lot of confusion and misdirection about the relative success of some of these acronyms.

The bucket of acronyms I’m referring is a collection of network virtualization technologies: Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), and software-defined wide area networking (SD-WAN). The primary value of all these technologies is to virtualize networks, which means that they enable customers to dynamically manage and provision their networks with software. The best analogy to date is that your smartphone is no longer a phone; it is a massively powerful network and software-access device.

Now, Gartner is pushing something it calls SASE. No, that’s not Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers, which is the first thing to come up on Google. Gartner calls it Secure Access Service Edge (SASE). Basically it’s SD-WAN with enhanced security.

I’m not sure why Gartner needed SASE. Maybe you need new acronyms to sell new services.

Acronyms become stale. The fashionable thing these days is to debate whether “SDN is dead” or “NFV is dead,” or some such nonsense. SD-WAN, meanwhile, is clearly hot – as demonstrated last week by network security vendor Fortinet’s 21% revenue growth attributed to largely SD-WAN growth. Futuriom estimates the market for SD-WAN tools and software is growing at a compound annual growth (CAGR) rate of about 33%. So, how can SDN be dead when SD-WAN is booming? The answer is that it’s impossible. All of these virtualization technologies are connected and interrelated.  And believe it or not – they are all succeeding.

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SD-WAN wouldn’t exist without SDN, because the “software-defined” part is in both of them. SD-WAN is actually a subset of SDN. As SD-WAN evolves, one of the challenges – enabling inter-carrier interoperability of SD-WAN virtual circuits – is going to be solved by SDN. SDN and its cousin NFV are both core network virtualization technologies that have enabled SD-WAN to be successful.

The problems occur when we obsess about definitions of acronyms and categories and forget about the main goal: How technology solves customer problems. SDN in its early days became associated with the notion of open-source controllers and OpenFlow technology in the data-center, which have since fallen out of fashion. That doesn’t mean that SDN died – it just morphed. Its primary value – to separate the control and management planes of networks into a software layer, to allow disaggregation from the hardware -- is still happening in spades. It just so happened that the most logical place for this to be applied was the enterprise customer edge – SD-WAN.

The entire cloud networking environment continues to be disaggregated and virtualized – and reliant on open source! From storage networks to carrier networks, software-defined anything—SDx—is alive and well.

On to NFV

Once again industry groups, marketers and the media hijacked the original story of NFV, which was simply to enable commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware to host discrete virtualized software functions that could be dynamically provisioned by the customer using software. This also sounds a lot like SD-WAN to me. Customers like it because they don’t even have to see the infrastructure -- they no longer have to stack up dozens of different proprietary hardware devices at their branches in order to add more software functionality. They can click on a portal and order it up new functionality from the cloud. It’s the network admin’s smartphone. Anybody can be a network admin – who needs a CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert)?

NFV ran into trouble when we started to narrowly define it within a world of telco infrastructure and ETSI diagrams, obsessing with whether there was an NFVi or an “orchestrators of orchestrators” (kill me now.) Another more technical challenge came down to how to scale virtual machines (VM), which resulted in some NFV products running into performance issues. But that’s not a problem with NFV in general, that’s a problem with one particular architecture and implementation. As the NFV story shifts to distributing software as microservices, it’s still NFV. Should we call it something else? Who cares? End users didn’t really care about where a product's functions fall into an industry standards diagram or a Gartner magic quadrant. They just want it to work.

Meanwhile, maybe there are some lessons we can take away from the perceived success of SD-WAN vs. the perceived lack of success in NFV and SDN. The SD-WAN market did diverge a bit from the NFV and SDN market. The providers in the SD-WAN market focused on customer problems and solutions. In an ironic twist, many of these SD-WAN products are proprietary – you can’t mix and match them. But is that bad? Not if the products are lowering the network operational costs and increasing the flexibility of provisioning cloud services. Over time, with efforts by industry organization such as the MEF, these products will get some better standards. But for now, it’s about growth.

A useful analogy might be Amazon Web Services (AWS). The technology behind AWS is largely proprietary and mysterious – though much of it is in fact based on open-source and software-defined principles. Is it NFV, SDN, NFVi? Again - who cares? It was all of these technologies, integrated into a high-performance computing cloud. It solved a lot of people’s problems, and enabled huge amounts of growth and scale. Some people are now starting to complain that AWS is too expensive and that it’s “Hard to leave,” which moves us into the multi-cloud debate. But when AWS was being built, I don’t think the engineers were worried about which box the industry was going to put them in. They were more concerned about innovating.

That’s probably what’s about to happen to SD-WAN. And SDN. And NFV. As SD-WAN takes hold and even expands to include functionality such as cybersecurity, inter-carrier quality of service (Qos), and analytics – it’s going to start merging back with SDN and NFV again. I think that innovation will accelerate – as long as we are open-minded about it and focused on solving customer problems. Customers are going to demand more openness and interoperability. We’re going to be talking more about SD-WAN interoperability across clouds – or multi-cloud as they call it.

Virtualization isn’t dying—it’s accelerating.

R. Scott Raynovich is the founder and chief analyst of Futuriom. For two decades, he has been covering a wide range of technology as an editor, analyst, and publisher. Most recently, he was VP of research at, which acquired his previous technology website, Rayno Report, in 2015. Prior to that, he was the editor in chief of Light Reading, where he worked for nine years. Raynovich has also served as investment editor at Red Herring, where he started the New York bureau and helped build the original website. He has won several industry awards, including an Editor & Publisher award for Best Business Blog, and his analysis has been featured by prominent media outlets including NPR, CNBC, The Wall Street Journal, and the San Jose Mercury News. He can be reached at [email protected]; follow him @rayno.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceTelecom staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceTelecom.