Where are we in the NFV lifecycle?
by Telecom Council · Published · Updated
Author: HP OpenNFV
In 2015, the telecom industry’s hottest technologies are the Internet of Things (IoT), connected cars, smart homes and NFV. Among all of these technologies, NFV is the only one the telecom industry has the full ability to shape, build and deploy.
Partnering with the Telecom Council of Silicon Valley, a regional organization with over 130 members—including the world’s largest telcos—we host a quarterly executive-level discussions on key NFV issues. Attendees at these meetings represent companies at the center of the NFV universe, including telecom infrastructure vendors, virtualization companies, network operators, server companies and various types of startups. Regardless of their specific interests, all participants are eager to share and learnabout the current state of NFV, roadmaps and the challenges ahead.
At the kickoff meeting held earlier this year, a roundtable discussion featuring some of Silicon Valley’s leading telecom minds expressed their views on the current status of the NFV lifecycle. Here’s a summary of that discussion.
Stakeholders unanimously agreed on their motivations for using NFV, yet differed on the exact order of importance. Carriers, for example, acknowledged that a reduction in the capital expense (CapEX) necessary to build out and scale networks is a leading motivation for adopting NFV. Yet carriers also believe that their prime motivation for adopting NFV is its ability to create much greater agility as well as a way of rapidly building and deploying new services. Such services represent new revenue streams to offset constantly dropping revenues per minute or gigabyte. Carriers also hope that NFV will allow them to competitively respond to threats from over-the-top (OTT) content services. Lastly, carriers look to NFV to free them from the vendor lock-in that legacy technologies have mandated.
NFV’s Initial Impact
Most of the roundtable participants believed that NFV would likely emerge first in services that are new to carriers—functions such as IP voice, security and MVNO enablement—as opposed to being deployed for services that replace existing network functions. Dissenters, however (including one innovative telecom vendor), countered that real carrier clients were already interested in (and now testing) their virtualized solutions for voice over LTE (VoLTE) and voicemail.
There was consensus that the business support system/operations support system (BSS/OSS) domain is the place least likely to see NFV services anytime soon. That’s because BSS/OSS remains a patchwork of messy systems (often humorously referred to as “more precious and more fragile than a Faberge egg”).
Considering the CapEx required for implementation, it is important to note that NFV will not pay dividends when applied to just one or two services. Initial services utilizing NFV will require a significant investment in “NFV overhead,” including skills, training, equipment, partnerships and more. NFV only really starts to pay off when there are multiple services leveraging the initial investment. For this reason, we should expect NFV to be launched with a batch of initial services, and vendors should be prepared to offer bundles or, in effect, “starter kits.”
New Ground, Faster Development
While NFV represents new ground for telcos, the technology itself is not entirely new—it’s simply the application to telecom of several of the tech industry’s best practices.
NFV essentially takes its cues from technology leaders like data center powerhouse Google, DevOps-focused Netflix and general tech industry trends like cloud computing and virtualization.
Telcos need to study these organizations and their practices. Netflix, for example, maintains a ridiculously fast pace of development, deploying code to live thousands of times per day using DevOps, with product managers working closely with engineers. This kind of integration could help telcos launch more services, more quickly and with a “fail fast, but fail gracefully” approach.
DevOps, however, requires collaboration between IT, marketing, innovators and external partners. This necessitates a culture change—not just at the edges of the telco enterprise, but throughout the whole organization. It’s an approach that creates a huge challenge for telcos.
New Partnerships, More Collaboration
To fully exploit NFV’s opportunity, the industry must forge new partnerships and collaborate with additional standards bodies. Partnerships will favor open-minded organizations.
Carriers, however, worry about heading down the NFV road with a new partner and then suddenly finding themselves locked-in by the very type of proprietary solutions and extensions they had sought to escape.Carriers can address this concern by getting on board with existing open virtualization solutions, such as OpenStack is for datacenters.
System Integration Challenges
The meeting participants offered more concerns than solutions for the challenges of actually applying NFV to carrier networks. Integration looms as a huge and complex job. The problem lies not with NFV, but with the byzantine arrangement of legacy systems that keep today’s networks running. These systems, while hideously complex, are regarded as crown jewels, simply because they meet carriers’ requirements for uptime, five nines, CDR capture, and reliability.
We agreed with other participants that OSS/BSS integration would be difficult, but not insurmountable. Still, there remain serious concerns that an NFV deployment could result in years (or even decades) of professional service fees from vendors to patch new code into legacy systems. Questions also remain about scalability, distribution and reliability, as well as who will perform service orchestration. No short-term answers were settled, but we agreed that a long-term solution will require disaggregating all functions, plugging them back into NFV and letting orchestration handle management. Looking forward, it’s important to understand that orchestration must not be based on legacy thinking, but the future. How we get from here to there will be a subject for future roundtables.
All participants agreed that NFV is evolving rapidly and that standing still is not an option. Carriers that don’t embrace NFV will continue to see OTT service providers eating their lunch, making even a fast-follower response impossible.
Carriers must quickly purge the legacy mindset from all parts of their organization, increase agility, learn how to “fail fast and recover” and understand that in some cases “five nines” may be less important than launch dates. In sectors such as enterprise IT, carriers need to understand that if they don’t offer solutions soon enough, their customers will build them on their own.
Vendors, meanwhile, need to think of the road ahead. Vendors that merely respond to carrier customers’ demands will quickly find themselves falling behind the curve. Vendors need to look toward the virtualized computing environment, which will likely become dominant within a decade, and prepare themselves to be solution providers.
For innovators, VCs, and entrepreneurs, NFV represents a major change in telecom networks. This transition is already underway, creating tremendous disruption. Yet whenever change and turmoil arrive, so does opportunity, and there has rarely been a better time to be a startup looking for an entry point into the carrier network market.
The Last Word (For Now)
This summary only scratches the surface in terms of issues discussed at our first quarterly NFV meeting. Things are moving fast in NFV. With our ongoing meetings, we expect to watch the shifting NFV landscape and report on our key findings.
For every meeting, we try to limit the number of attendees to 20, but we’re also looking to attract fresh participants and their ideas. If you are interested in attending an upcoming quarterly meeting, please visit the Telecom Council of Silicon Valley’s Web site and request an invitation to participate.