In terms of 5G, NFV allows service providers to virtualize all the appliances in the network, and it enables network slicing. And both of these illustrate the increased flexibility and new services that NFV allows — which is why Telus started working on virtualizing its network in the first place back in 2015.
“We were looking to create a more flexible framework that we can deliver services on, to innovate on — really that’s one of our primary motivations,” Mitchell said, adding that a more flexible environment will allow it to be more agile and deploy new services easier and faster. “That is part and parcel with the 5G stuff that is motivating us.”
The second reason is cost savings on the capex and opex side of things. “NFV is really about driving down costs, be that costs of hardware or costs of operations,” he said.
Start Small, Expect Bruises
But despite these benefits, it wasn’t always an easy transition. In addition to “a few technical bruises,” Telus struggled with cultural change among its employees as it deployed virtualization technologies. “Even just the shift to software is a fairly significant shift in culture for a telecom provider,” Mitchell said. “We were grappling with a number of things internally: how do we address and embrace some of the opportunities that a purely software world gives us?”
Service providers are used to long project timelines and fairly static environments that updated maybe a couple of times per year. Shifting to software and a virtualized network allowed for more frequent updates and new services, but it also required a shift in Telus’ processes and its employees’ mindsets.
Part of the way the company overcame this cultural obstacle was to start small, Mitchell said. “Rather than trying to do big, sweeping, all-encompassing change, we said let’s take some small focus teams and expand out. Get some successes under our belts and show people how new processes and ways of working can help unlock value.”
Telus began offering network as a service last year and deployed SDN this fall. But while that part of Telus’ NFV program didn’t happen until recently, it was always part of the plan — and the network architecture. “SDN is going to be a very broad deployment,” Mitchell said. “We made sure we included SDN within the NFV pods themselves. We wanted to make sure we had a programmatic layer we could use to more efficiently route the network functions within the pods.”
Open Source Code
The service provider uses a lot of open source code in its NFV and SDN. Its NFV pods are based on OpenStack, and its SDN control is based on OpenContrail, which was renamed Tungston Fabric after it became part of the Linux Foundation Networking Fund. “And some of the tooling we use that sits around the platform for monitoring and for automated administration of the platform are open source tools,” Mitchell said.
Telus also provides secure, private network access to Microsoft Azure Cloud and SD-WAN. Its goal is to continue to expand SDN. “SDN will be fairly ubiquitous even outside of NFV and give us that programmatic network,” Mitchell said. “So instead of manual configs and static routers, we can have a more dynamic and automatically controlled network.”
Looking ahead, the company plans to add “new flavors of network functions” in the coming years and invest in newer cloud-native technologies, Mitchell said. Telus has already used some containers in production environments, but not for network functions. “It’s been more for the supportive tooling around it,” he said. “But for real network functions to be heavily leveraging containers, we’re probably a year to two years out.”