NFV is a solution and a problem!
Priorities of Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) are changing – They are driven by ever changing customer needs such as – high availability, high elasticity and highly reliable networks – resulting in their rapid adoption of next generation and virtualization software technologies. Industry giants like AT&T are setting a target of achieving 55% network virtualization by the end of 2017 and many of its peers such as Telefonica, NTT, CenturyLink, Telecom Italia and China Mobile are also taking steps towards implementing NFV (Network Function Virtualization). But all this is not without unexpected challenges.
What it used to be?
Historically TSPs have been dependent upon vendors who provide proprietary hardware and software black-boxes. Network elements that provide functionality for 3G/4G wireless networks were all based on vendor specific proprietary solutions. These ‘proprietary black boxes’ offer network functions like evolved packet core, network address translation, firewalls encryption, domain name service, caching and others. Introducing new services for end customers using this infrastructure was time consuming, costly and hence ready for disruption. Further drawbacks were low rate of feature innovation and feature introduction and a costly oligopoly system.
Disruption – The drivers for NFV
Innovation by web-scale companies changed consumer expectations. Companies such as “Google”, “Netflix”, “Amazon” etc. used virtualization technology, automation, AI, etc. to roll-out software updates to millions of people in minutes. These technologies have changed how consumers work, learn, live and play! Proliferation of smart and real-time devices like smart – phones/TVs fuelled customer needs. Demand for elasticity of network services, automatic network and service provisioning, service agility and monitoring and management based on real time analytics has become critical.
Changing consumer demand forced TSPs to incorporate business model changes, they shifted focus from:
- Voice to data
- Quality of bandwidth to Quality of customer experience
- Individual plans to shared family plans
- Bandwidth centric plans to application centric plans
- Monthly interaction with customer to real-time interaction with customers
Multitudes of start-ups and smaller vendors dis-aggregated the vertically integrated black box solutions to address the service providers challenges mentioned above. Shown below is a comparison of a vertically integrated traditional architecture versus an open, horizontal, disaggregated Eco- System.
Expected benefits of NFV
- Low lifecycle operations cost
- Service agility
- Faster Innovation
TSPs do not have to rely anymore on any single vendor peddling “black boxes”. They could now build their own NFV based architectures to achieve the benefits mentioned above. A new landscape with changed technology and business parameters have evolved using these ecosystem players.
Problems in scaling NFV based solutions
The biggest challenge is Systems Integration – the industry now has hundreds of players making competing software on standard hardware. New challenges emerged in getting all of them to work in a cohesive high-performance environment.With so many permutations and combinations of software products, interoperability, carrier grade uptime (99.999%), life cycle management, and performance requirements all became difficult to meet. Vendor accountability and single neck to choke is also a major issue.
The Future – How will these problems be addressed?
Systems integration expertise, availability of talent and life cycle management are problem areas. Use of web scale technologies to automate life cycle management becomes key to reduce operational cost and increase rapid deployment of services. Software service providers are beginning to address the systems integration problem too by providing value to both equipment providers as well as TSPs. TSPs should invest in:
- Automation of Life Cycle Management
- Leveraging web scale technologies like micro services and containers
- Adoption of DevOps process and technologies
- Integration, inter-operability testing and QA of multi-vendor solutions
Although NVF has provided many benefits, unless the above are addressed quickly adoption at web scale will continue to be a challenge.
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