opinion

From the lab to the market: NFV in the mainstream in 2016

NFV

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Douglas Tait, Director, Product Marketing at Oracle Communications anticipates accelerating NFV adoption over the course of this year.

There is much more to virtualization than servers. The same concepts that enable storage providers to increase server utilization can be applied to telecommunication network equipment, helping to drive down costs, increase efficiency, and become more agile to respond to fast-changing market demands.

Communications Services Providers (CSPs) are quickly learning to appreciate the benefits that Network Function Virtualization (NFV) and Software Defined Networking (SDN) can bring to their business and operations, with one analyst predicting that the market will be worth more than $20 billion within the next five years.

Among the key attractions of virtualization are that it enables CSPs to run software on commodity hardware, which helps to lower costs substantially, while also bringing better orchestration capabilities which lead to better network management and agility.

With the industry on the brink of mass adoption of these technologies, it’s a good time to look back at the history of NFV, and explore what we can expect in the coming years.

A brief history of virtualization

Traditionally one of the biggest headaches facing CSPs has been network management, especially as communications infrastructure has become increasingly complex in recent years. This was one of the key drivers for the invention and implementation of NFV, as it enabled managers to consolidate and manage network functions across any variety of hardware.

As an untried and unproven technology, early virtualization projects were limited to non-essential parts of the network; however, it did not take much time for NFV to come of age and prove its worth; a fact reflected in the way that many CSPs are currently planning to deploy carrier-grade functions across virtualized infrastructure.

Today, the performance of virtualized networks is close enough to traditional platforms that CSPs can start to reap the benefits of the technology without having to worry about reliability. Having been exhaustively tested in high-demand environment, platforms from the likes of KVM, OpenStack, and VMware, now give CSPs a real solution to the long-standing issue of vendor lock-in. Now, instead of investing in new physical equipment, they can choose from a smörgåsbord of functions delivered by software rather than hardware.

The real benefit of NFV comes not merely from managing specific network functions themselves, but rather from the ability to orchestrate the network as a whole. It is this orchestration capability that promises to revolutionize the industry in two key ways. First, it enables telecoms firms to introduce new web-like services based on agile platforms, similar to communications tools such as Skype or WhatsApp. Secondly, the newfound network agility enables communications providers to reallocate resources around their network based on considerations such as capacity or demand.

It may be too soon to write the obituary for whole classes of physical network assets, but there is no denying that virtualized functions are set to steal a large share of the work currently performed by physical equipment. It’s not enough, however, simply to implement virtualized functions: to achieve the full benefits, communications must ensure that their networks function like a finely tuned orchestra.

Orchestrating success

To realize the true potential that NFV promises, providers must turn their attention to the interactions between virtual and physical network functions, creating a new reality of Composite Network Functions (CNF). As always when mixing physical and virtualized elements in a single whole, the key to success is effective orchestration at every level, from service design to data centre operations, to managing the inherent complexity of such systems.

A good way to think of orchestration is to take the actual example of an orchestra. The hardware represents the individual instruments, while the orchestration is the conductor, who can silence musicians, or bring new ones in at will. An orchestra similarly only has ONE conductor, and it is similarly imperative that network management is conducted through a single, simple platform.

Simplicity is critical, no matter how complicated the networks, and no matter how many layers are added in terms of systems, functions, services, orchestration, and management technologies.  The key to achieving this lies in an NFV implementation that incorporates “intelligent orchestration” based on a powerful combination of policy rules that govern network and service behaviors, as well as analytic feedback from run-time operations.

Virtualized networks clearly need new management methods compared to fully physical ones, requiring intelligent orchestration to order, provision, deliver, support, and bill for services. Without this orchestration, CSPs will be unable to unlock such benefits as greater agility, or the ability to add new services effectively – and so to compete with the types of communications provided by the tech behemoths of Facebook and Apple (to name but two).

These companies are so successful largely because they have redefined what users expect from service delivery and customer experience; but CSPs who embrace virtualization have the opportunity to match this experience and to develop winning communications platforms of their own.

Future development

Until fairly recently the story of NFV has been about its potential rather than delivering real-world benefits, and the focus has been on experimentation and proof of concept. Virtualization has more often been limited to the laboratory, or other “soft environments” where CSPs have tested the capabilities of new virtualized functions.

This process of trial and error has led to some significant breakthroughs that promise to revolutionize operations when they are deployed ‘in anger’. These include the ability to make dynamic bandwidth adjustments, enabling CSPs to control quality of service or data volume entitlements in real-time, which brings the opportunity to deliver more innovative services. What is more, testing has shown how CSPs can gain rich insight into subscriber data profiles and information about state, usage, location, entitlements, and restrictions.

The time has come, however, for NFV to move out of the lab and into the real world. Communications firms are now beginning to deploy network virtualization into commercial service, which opens up new opportunities to develop innovative, NFV-enabled services that will bring in new revenue streams.

The success of these services will ultimately depend on whether CSPs can build effective strategies around policy-driven, analytically-charged management capabilities – and, of course, effective orchestration of the different network, service, function, and data centre elements.

The future for NFV, and the CSPs that deploy it, looks bright indeed. It will not be long before virtualization becomes standard within communications networks, enabling providers to cut their operational costs, improve resource utilization, and gain the agility they need to introduce innovative and lucrative new services that their customers will love using.

 

Doug TaitAs Director of Product Marketing for Oracle Communications, Doug is responsible for driving the strategy and tactics for Service Delivery Platforms, Policy, Service Brokering, and IP integration. Prior to Oracle, Doug was the director for Global Telecom Markets at BEA and founded the JAIN initiative defining Java™ technology for communications at Sun.


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