By Zia Askari
At a time when telecom operators are looking towards increasing their network efficiencies, Network Function Virtualization or NFV stands ideally poised to become an engine of growth for operator’s profitability in the coming months and years.
In a software-driven world, NFV provides a paradigm shift in how the operator provision and manage their set of service offerings towards their customer sets. This drive towards NFV is also paving the way for operator’s path towards becoming experience providers for their customers.
According to John Giere, CEO, Openwave Mobility, NFV is real and operators are evaluating their NFV strategies and rolling out trials today – defining reference architecture, assessing performance and interoperability.
“They are looking at not just the network functions, but the management and orchestration services. We are aware of multiple trials primarily focused on vEPC but also moving into service chaining and application functions (functions that manipulate content or manage and meter access based on personal profile). The largest current opportunity in monetization terms is around packet core function – but our customers are also looking at the pressure on their business models. As a result are also very interested in the next generation of services, pricing and data management as this will provide a significant contribution to the personalization of their business. The key benefit of NFV in respect of programmable agile deployment will be critical in this stage,” he explains.
The challenge in assessing NFV is business as well as technical – and in answering questions such as – how will operators transform their business and operational structures into a virtual environment, this complexity is real concern for operators.
Providing a service provider perspective, Jerzy Szlosarek, Chief Operating Officer, Epsilon says that NFV momentum is certainly gathering pace with many vendors now adopting NFV strategies, driven by the need for greater efficiencies and huge scaling of service provider and cloud based networks.
“Today’s highly integrated network ecosystem requires seamless access between the compute, storage and network components and NFV is an ideal way to achieve the simplification and standardisation required between these various network segments. End-to-end software control enabling rapid reconfiguration of multiple network layers is really the end goal for most providers given the dynamic and fluid nature of today’s networks and providers will realise opportunities in cost savings, expanding reach through network collaboration, offering new services through these collaborations as well as operating a common software based network architecture rather than the legacy silo model of the past,” he explains.
Jay Jayasimha – Chief Technology Innovation Officer, Cataleya explains that NFV signals the transition from proprietary hardware based solutions to software based solutions that run on general purpose servers. The concept of virtualization that led to the transition from one application-one server model to multiple applications over a virtualized server farm architecture was leveraged in a seminar paper in 2012 by a group of tier-1 operators to investigate the application of this virtualized architecture into the CSP network, which was called Network Functions Virtualization.
“In the carrier networks, there are 2 distinct areas activities, namely the control plane and the data plane. NFV finds valuable application in the virtualization of the control plane that are transactional and signaling oriented. Here, there is a big advantage to virtualize these network functions that provides for security (NAT, firewalls), load balancers, signaling routers (diameter for interaction with HSS/PCRFs etc.), WAN accelerators, edge devices (such as BRAS etc.), applications such as CDNs, DPIs etc and DB modules such as HSS/PCRFs. These functions are traditionally delivered in proprietary hardware packages that cost significantly in CAPEX and OPEX to the operators. With the capability of providing software based solutions for the above functions that can run on off-the-shelf X86 servers, NFV finds significant value proposition in delivering a very optimal solution for the operators. Data plane applications have a need for low latency and especially in the area of real time communications such as voice with transcoding needs have been more challenging in the NFV world. The virtualization hypervisors induce additional latencies that could impair the subscriber’s quality of experience,” he explains.
There are innovations unfolding that would make the real time data plane activities amenable to NFV while falling within the subscriber’s requirement for quality of experience. Of course, data plane activities in non-real time applications lend themselves to virtualization as seen in the virtualization of the GGSN/SGSN etc.
Big Gains from NFV
As per the experts close to the telecom segment, one of the greatest benefits of NFV is achieving the efficiencies between multiple network layers as the network transitions from multiple silos to a flatter architecture. Key benefits are full end-to-end control of multiple network layers as well as increased time to market and providing real-time access to network resources and hence enabling far better network manageability.
Jerzy Szlosarek from Epsilon says that today’s telecom landscape is becoming rapidly commoditised with very little differentiation between service provider offerings as far as bandwidth and network services are concerned. Operators are looking at strategies to collapse as many network layers and processes as possible into a flatter architecture and are actively reviewing SDN solutions to control this flat architecture.
“Significant operational benefits can be achieved, primarily the access to real-time and on demand based networking, instant resource reconfiguration as well as improved service assurance, monitoring and QoS capabilities as many systems are integrated and can report information across the network in real-time. Operating an NFV architecture provides the basic components to enable many of these advantages and operators are looking at NFV as a solution to transition into the next generation flat architecture,” he explains.
On the other hand, Jay Jayasimha from Cataleya opines that NFV tends to be one of the hottest areas in interest of operators as evidenced by the AT&T’s Domain 2.0 paper. Cataleya has been studying this area closely and we see application of virtualized SBC (session border controller) solutions both from point of view of optimizing cost to performance ratio as well as to enhance the service offering capability of operators that would result in faster time to market/revenues for services reliably, securely and in a scalable way.
“On the data plane requirements for real time applications, there are significant developments in the areas of packet processing, forwarding, and transcoding applications in the industry. We are keeping on top of this and providing solutions that offer the full benefits of NFV to the operators,” he adds on.
As per the views of John Giere from Openwave Mobility, the fact is operators are very interested in virtualizing their networks, with two main drivers – cost reduction and flexibility. However, they are pragmatic in assessing the degree of change – as above all telecom grade systems must be reliable and resilient. The practical aspect of lab and test systems also needs to be balanced by vendors with staged rollout into production. The flexibility of deploying services/service chains has to be teamed with the operational and management infrastructure, and then assessed from a cost perspective. One way of putting it is, the operators are looking at costs and checking whether they are replacing one kind of cost with another and not really saving anything.
“The real benefit of innovation and flexibility will mature over time. At Openwave Mobility we provide real use cases and solutions that enable the operator, in an NFV environment to re-address the balance between OTT players / content providers. And build a next generation ecosystem, which will benefit the user, the connectivity provider and the content provider. However, the majority of operators are still taking a back-seat role in the development of NFV technologies. One of the issues with this approach is that without detailed and consistent operator input there is a danger that the technology could fall into silos – which could reduce the flexibility that virtualization could provide. NFV is transformational and disruptive to the operator’s business, and guiding vendors through engagement and new use cases is vital,” he explains.
As it is increasingly becoming critical for operators to be more open to intertwine software driven networking ecosystem as part of their business offering, however, operators will need to drive the vendors to comply with open APIs that enable these virtualized network functions to work in a reliable fashion.
With NFV at the helm, operators will need to further strengthen their operations and maintenance tools infrastructure in order to ensure that their virtualized environments and applications are running smoothly and within the limits of reliable metrics.
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