In this series of columns, I’ve been examining the path to the telco cloud and how long it will take. Technologies such as network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN) have much upside – but they are complicated when incorporated into an operator network. Success in assimilating them and delivering innovative new services will depend on how well these new technologies are integrated into the operational frameworks of the network.
NFV is often thought of as applying an IT/cloud model to the Telco network. But connecting the cloud to a core operator network involves a dizzying array of operations support systems (OSSs) and services platforms – not to mention a core optical network. Building the telco cloud not only requires specialized NFV infrastructure (NFVI) inside the data center, but it will also require integration at software and hardware layers existing outside the data center. This includes synching with OSS, WAN, and services orchestration technology, something we have referred to as lifecycle services orchestration (LSO). To build a true, carrier NFV service that can deliver such advanced applications as virtual surgery will require a full, integrated operational stack.
The Full Carrier NFV Stack
The higher levels of the NFV stack – OSS, orchestration, and SDN – are often unwieldy and difficult for carriers to operationalize. But these elements are needed to build a virtualized system that can deliver on the promise of a dynamic, automatic network that is aware of the entire universe of resources and applications available.
Pascal Menezes, CTO of the MEF, explained this challenge to me earlier in the year. Menezes previously worked at Microsoft where he had experience working with the Skype for Business product. Skype for Business is an over-the-top Internet service for corporate communications. It runs in the cloud. But could it be considered NFV? What about working with the operator to upgrade connection quality? No matter how robust the core cloud platform, unless intelligence about the service provider network can be injected into the service, an OTT service such as Skype has very little capability to guarantee a great user experience comparable to, say, a corporate teleconferencing system. I don’t mean to pick on Skype, because the same can be said for any OTT experience, including Netflix, Facebook Live, or many gaming services.
End-to-End Carrier NFV
True NFV, delivered in the carrier cloud, needs to have end-to-end service awareness to deliver the customer a high-end experience. This will require integration across the WAN with SDN and service orchestration tools such as LSO. This is why SDN and NFV are taking a while. Service providers have spoken publicly about how integration with their operations and core infrastructures will demand a lot of work to virtualize the entire network.
In a recent media conference call with Verizon’s network architecture team, Fred Oliveira, a Verizon fellow for SDN and NFV architecture, pointed out that Verizon is working on overhauling its collection of software systems in the core network to integrate with the NFV cloud itself.
“Verizon has taken an initiative to integrate all of our network functions and deploy them in a more flexible cloud environment. This required us to integrate some SDN control, manage the network functionality,” said Oliveira. “How do you move from a bare-metal appliance and deploy them in virtual fashion? This has required some large-scale planning.”
Other service providers have also developed their own plans for how NFV will integrate with operations and service orchestration layers. AT&T has announced Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management, and Policy (ECOMP), which is now open source and includes millions of lines of code covering many of these components, including WAN orchestration and OSS integration. ECOMP includes the Master Service Orchestrator (MSO), which helps automate end-to-end service instance provisioning.
Orchestration: A Key to Carrier NFV
Why are the operators moving into this area themselves? Because it requires a large-scale integration of many technology platforms in their networks. ECOMP, of course, isn’t the only service orchestration tool targeting WAN. Vendor-driven projects such as Ciena’s Blue Planet and ADVA’s Ensemble Orchestrator are also looking to take orchestration to an end-to-end service provider environment. And other open source projects, such as OPEN-Orchestrator Project (OPEN-O), managed by the Linux Foundation, are aiming to manage orchestration across both SDN and NFV environments.
These large-scale efforts replicate the global operator networks as vast, complex entities. That’s why we shouldn’t think of NFV as merely porting a cloud to the telcos. We need to understand that true NFV won’t happen until we connect all the entities involved in delivering the customer a modern, virtualized service.