MEMBER NEWS: On the Road to Service Provider Virtualization, Expect More Marathon than Sprint

Author: David Sliter, Vice President & General Manager of Communications Solutions Business, HPE

HPE_NEWThe media has been buzzing about the state of network functions virtualization (NFV) in the communications service provider industry—including some criticisms that NFV has not lived up to expectations. It’s true that the industry is still figuring out the best way to capitalize on virtualization. And there are opportunities for all stakeholders—NFV solution vendors, communications service providers (CSPs), developer communities—to learn what works and what doesn’t. This process will unfold over the next few years. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise; it’s just what any major technology transformation looks like.
As we navigate potential roadblocks and learn as we go, let’s be clear: cloud and virtualization represent the future of service provider architectures. The benefits are simply too great, and the push from CSPs themselves too strong. But, because operator environments are so different from enterprise IT environments, this will be a journey, and we should understand what to expect.


Virtualizing CSP Versus Enterprise Environments

Why has the CSPs’ embrace of virtualization been so complicated? Why can’t we just take enterprise cloud architectures, throw them over the wall and into telco environments, and get started? Because service provider environments are a very different animal than enterprise IT.

First, CSP architectures must meet demands for “carrier-grade” resiliency, performance, and scalability that simply don’t exist in the enterprise IT world. After all, most enterprise applications don’t fall into the category of life impacting applications with the same criticality of an E911 service call. Telco services and network functions also tend to be far more distributed than enterprise resources.

Additionally, in enterprise clouds, most applications are effectively self-contained, so inherently well suited to virtualization. They have few if any dependencies on other enterprise functions and run basically the same way regardless of where they’re hosted. In CSP environments, any new software (especially software used to create new virtualized network functions) must address dependencies with a wide range of running services and systems, including legacy OSS/BSS, and interoperate with equipment from many different vendors.

Finally, telco applications are much more mobile. Where enterprise applications can be ported to the nearest cloud and remain there, telco applications constantly migrate in time and geography. This means the network must process huge amounts of state information in real time. This results in CSP cloud and virtualized service configurations that are orders of magnitude more complex than in enterprise environments.

Who’s Driving Virtualization?

If it’s so complicated, why bother to adopt cloud and virtualization? Some observers imagine this was all dreamed up by vendors trying to sell new products that CSPs don’t really need. In reality, the push for NFV came from operators themselves for the most basic reason: dollars and cents. Most CSPs envision a future where, if they continue using traditional network models, their profitability steadily diminishes. Just a few years ago, service providers were forecasting that cost per bit would overtake revenues as early as 2016.

For CSPs to get control of their economics, they must find a way to drive down operating costs, open new revenue streams, and bring new services to market faster. Virtualization and cloud technology are the most promising methods to achieve the savings, growth and agility goals for the next generation CSP business. That’s why leaders from CSPs across the industry came together to conceptualize NFV in the first place. Many stakeholders—network equipment vendors, open-source communities, and standards bodies—are now collaborating to bring NFV to telco networks. But they’re all working to fulfill the charter their telco customers have given them.


Making Cloud and NFV a Reality

Recognizing the complexities involved in virtualization, what should this transformation look like? Exactly what we see today – CSPs and their partners exploring many diverse paths to virtualization and the cloud. It may seem “messy” at times, but this process of getting new solutions into the lab and exploring what works and what doesn’t, is the only way to advance a technology shift of this magnitude. Along the way, everyone involved learns important lessons, and takes that knowledge back to improve the underlying technologies.

Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned so far:

  • Don’t try to do everything at once: Some CSPs have attempted to virtualize network functions, migrate to the cloud, and address OSS/BSS evolution all in one big leap. Projects like these become immensely complex. They introduce more potential pitfalls, more risk, and often organizational fatigue as everything feels like it’s constantly in flux. CSPs that have been most successful to date may describe an overarching philosophy of transformation, but they execute at the level of individual use cases with the goal of “failing fast” learning, and continual optimization – a succeed fast, agile approach.


  • Start small and expand: Along those lines, successful operators are implementing NFV in quick sprints, transitioning small pieces of the puzzle first, instead of constantly thinking big picture and getting overwhelmed in complexity. Typically, that entails transforming a more protected or self-contained part of the network, learning, and then replicating successes elsewhere. In many cases, these migrations can become self-sustaining. Operators can transform one limited area (such as enterprise WAN and value-added services), realize a return on that investment, and use that to fund transformation in other domains.


  • Vendors matter: Traditional CSP network equipment vendors can struggle virtualizing their solutions. They understand telco challenges, but are not seasoned with the sophisticated evolving technologies in the virtualization and cloud domain. IT vendors may partially succeed—for example, creating a basic framework to run network functions in software, but falter by not accounting for the unique complexities of a telco cloud. If CSPs want to avoid missteps and implement new capabilities faster, they should look for vendors that combine both experience in telco architectures with proven expertise in virtualization and the cloud.

NFV and cloud will succeed in the CSP industry; operators won’t accept anything less. But as we proceed along this journey, everyone involved—vendors and CSPs alike—will need to continue bringing new ideas into the lab, learning from real-world successes and roadblocks, and finding the winning formula for their business.

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