When Affirmed Networks got off the ground five years ago, it set out to build a product with few, if any, clear customers. Few telcos were seriously considering virtualizing the complex network hardware that underpins cellular data and voice networks, known as the evolved packet Core (EPC).
“A lot of the legacy vendors would say ‘You can’t virtualize this kind of network — the performance demands are too great,'” Angela Whiteford, Affirmed’s vice president of marketing and product management, told us at Mobile World Congress 2015 in Barcelona last week.
“A couple of years ago that was probably true. Now we’re at a tipping point,” she added. As general-purpose processors like the Intel x86 continue to get faster, software becomes ever more viable as a replacement for specialized network hardware.
It could be the next big shift in telecommunications, a gamble that Affirmed CEO Hassan Ahmed was willing to take when he founded the company in 2010. Previously CEO of Sonus Networks, Ahmed took the VoIP technology firm public before stepping down in 2008.
Affirmed hit the public stage in a big way at last year’s MWC, when AT&T tapped the Boston-based startup for its Domain 2.0 supplier program — a major coup for the previously unknown startup.
A year later, details on the progress of the AT&T partnership are scant, with Affirmed’s Whiteford declining to offer specifics on deployments.
Still, the company has grown quickly, hoping to use its head start in carrier NFV to edge out massive competitors with deep hooks in telco networks. Backed by $117 million through five rounds of venture funding, Affirmed how has more than 200 employees and claims 20 deployments and 40 trials underway.
Affirmed is well positioned to take advantage of the move to virtualize mobile network cores — a shift that is inevitable, says Peter Jarich, vice president of consumer and infrastructure at research firm Current Analysis.
“EPC is one of the things operators say they’re looking to virtualize,” Jarich said. “They’re all moving on the packet core. It’s not a question of if — or even when — they’re all moving there.”
Evidence of that abounded in Barcelona last week, with NFV on the tip of every tongue.
Perhaps the biggest news impacting Affirmed to come out of MWC wasn’t about the company itself at all, but close competitor Connectem, which has also developed the components of a vEPC. Brocade announced plans to buy that startup for an undisclosed amount.
Brocade’s move could signal a breakdown between the traditional realms of IP and wireless vendors. “The usual thought would be a radio access vendor picking up Connectem,” Jarich said. “But instead it was someone on the IP side trying to find a way into telco.”
Affirmed declined to comment on the prospect of an acquisition, but a similar cross-vertical deal could be just as likely as a more traditional acquisition at this point.
“For someone else trying to push into that market,” Jarich said, “this would be a great entree, sure.”