Software Already Defines Our Lives

But the impact of SDN will go beyond networking alone

8 December 2014

The advent of software-defined networks (SDNs) and network functions virtualization (NFV) is going to affect just about every part of our lives, including driving, shopping, and health care. Advances are making cloud-computer networks and virtual IT platforms accessible to just about anyone on the so-called edge, where most of us hang out with our terminals: smartphones, tablets, and wearables. The boundaries have been blurred between terminals and networks and between networks and the cloud.

Embedded communications and processing are about putting everything about us in the cloud or in the fog (which extends cloud computing to the edge of the network). Soon there will be more software services and applications than ever before, experts say, leading to a plethora of intelligent machines. The machines will be able to sense, process, and exchange information, understand what’s happening around them, and adapt to change.

“Advances in technology performance and decreasing costs of processing ultrabroadband connectivity are creating the conditions for reinventing network architectures so as to support flexibly and dynamically the burgeoning number of new advanced terminals and intelligent machines at the edge,” says IEEE Member Antonio Manzalini, chair of the IEEE Software Defined Networks Initiative. “This will ultimately change the socioeconomic landscape; it’s a technological tipping point that will alter the space-time of society.”

That “software-enabled concept,” as he refers to it, is being called “softwarization” or “IT-ization.” SDNs and NFV will make telecommunications infrastructures more pervasive, flexible, and capable of supporting all those terminals out there, he says. (See the list below for examples of machines out on the edge that are part of softwarization.)

“Softwarization means that the threshold of investment for new players to enter the ICT [information and communications technology] market will dramatically decrease,” Manzalini says, “leading to the launch of new businesses and new forms of cooperation and competition.”

The changing roles and relationships among network service providers, content producers, consumer electronics manufacturers, and telecommunications vendors will call for new regulations, he says, particularly to protect personal information.

CHANGING LANDSCAPE

Softwarization is likely to make our lives easier, and it is also likely to affect the job market. Softwarization can help reshape the economy by optimizing processes. And forecasts predict more things will be manufactured locally—which, in turn, would reduce the need for long-distance transportation. That would mean less energy waste and pollution.

Looking further into the future, Manzalini says self-driving cars and trucks will reduce the need for human drivers. Smarter robots in agriculture and industry will reduce the risk of exposing people to harsh and hazardous environments, he adds. Drones will replace postal workers, messengers, and delivery drivers, he says. Telecommunications networks of the future will play a key strategic role, he predicts, becoming the “nervous system” of the digital society and economy.

“This transition will require new value chains and different kinds of jobs and workers,” he says. “New skills will be needed. As technology races ahead, workers will have to be reallocated to tasks that computers and intelligent machines will never be able to carry out, such as designing and educating, and doing other work that requires creativity and social intelligence.”

That’s why the IEEE SDN Initiative is working on alerting educators, employers, politicians, and others to the enormous impact that softwarization is likely to have.

“Education will be very important in understanding the implications of the transition toward the digital society and digital economy, as well as identifying the new roles and skills required to deal with such a transition,” Manzalini says.

Examples of Software-Defined Networks on the Edge

  • Self-driving vehicles

    These vehicles are expected to be commercially available by the end of this decade. They could save lives by reducing traffic accidents.

  • Unmanned aerial vehicles

    Most commercial unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are expected to be used in agriculture. For example, farmers could see patterns in their fields that indicate soil variation, irrigation problems, pest infestations, and changes to healthy plants. Delivery drones are anticipated as well.

  • Robots

    Robots are already in factories and hospitals and on farms. They can do the same physical work as people, but they can do it for 24 hours or more at a stretch, with minimal maintenance.

  • Medical sensors and actuators

    Medical sensors and actuators can be embedded in clothing or as part of smartphone apps, along with wearable devices to monitor heart rate, calories burned, blood sugar, and cholesterol.

  • Fitness apps and wearables

    Fitness apps and wearables, such as the Nike FuelBand, track walking, jogging, dancing, and other activities. Apps can help plan healthy meals and monitor caloric intake. Some fitness and nutrition apps are able to share information via the cloud to monitor the user’s health. Apple’s new Health app and its iOS 8 operating system can present your information succinctly, because its HealthKit software tool allows its health and fitness apps to work together.

  • Intelligent personal assistants

    Intelligent personal assistants, such as Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana and robot servant Jibo, help people with daily activities.

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