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CableLabs Takes On Network Virtualization

Mari Silbey

DOCSIS and wireless technologies take up much of the air over at CableLabs, but they aren't the only topics of focus for the organization's engineering teams. Among the projects on the docket over at CableLabs is one covering virtualization and network evolution.

Yes, yes, the traditional telcos have been all over virtualization for several years now, but cable has taken notice and is slowly but surely moving in the same direction.

CableLabs kicked off its virtualization project in 2015 with a technical report on SDN architectures for cable access networks. A few weeks ago, it released its second report, this one offering more detail on virtual provisioning interfaces.

For context, CableLabs' vision for NFV and SDN in the cable industry revolves around moving some of the functions in an access network into software that can be run in a virtual machine environment. However, it acknowledges that not all parts of the network will be virtualized in the near term, and that any new system will have to contend with legacy, dedicated cable hardware as well.

Toward that end, the team working through CableLabs (including engineers from member companies) has identified three new components for next-generation cable access networks: a Service Orchestrator that translates commands from an operator's OSS/BSS system into network configuration commands; an NFV Orchestrator that runs the network virtualization platform and all virtual network functions; and a Master SDN Controller with underlying SDN Controllers that oversees the entire network topology, establishing connectivity between VNFs while also interacting with legacy cable access hardware.

In the newest CableLabs paper, the engineering team moves this vision a step forward with information on the interfaces that need to be created between the Service Orchestrator and SDN Controller, and between the SDN Controller and both VNFs and physical network devices.

For more fixed broadband market coverage and insights, check out our dedicated Gigabit/Broadband content channel here on Light Reading.

The work by CableLabs comes none too soon as many in the vendor community are already actively developing products for a virtual cable access architecture. Last September at the SCTE Cable-Tec Expo show, several companies introduced virtualized CCAP platforms including Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) (based on the Gainspeed vCCAP portfolio), Harmonic Inc. (Nasdaq: HLIT) and Casa Systems Inc. Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. is also in the virtual CCAP game, although so far exiled from the US market. (See Cable's Upgrade Moment – Part IV.)

Not to be left out, cable vendor stalwarts Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS) and Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) have their own virtualization efforts underway, although neither has shared much publicly in the way of details. (See Arris Soft, but Still Strong in Q1 and How Harmonic Aims to Disrupt CCAP Market.)

And from the PON side of the equation, both Adtran Inc. (Nasdaq: ADTN) and Calix Inc. (NYSE: CALX) have developed software-defined access platforms, with Calix in particular working to connect its platform back to traditional DOCSIS-provisioned networks. (See Calix Intros AXOS DPx for Cable Operators)

The cable trend toward access network virtualization goes hand in hand with the trend toward distributed access architectures (DAA). The goal of DAA, which is expected to reach commercial adoption in 2018, is to push cable-specific technology as far to the edge of the network as possible while simultaneously using a phased approach to move many controller functions into software. (See Cable Moves Toward Faster, Smarter Access and Cable's DAA Moment Is Here.)

Meanwhile, the cable industry recognizes that it's not developing network technology in a vacuum. CableLabs, in its latest technical report, acknowledges that cable efforts so far are only dealing with a part of the larger network whole. Specifically, CableLabs notes that its technical work in the report does not extend beyond provisioning services on a single operator's access networks, and therefore does not address certain ETSI concepts like Management and Orchestration (MANO). CableLabs also notes that there are other virtualization efforts taking place outside of ETSI, such as the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP), and that operators will ultimately need to ensure some reconciliation between technologies as they deploy new virtualized architectures.

The latest CableLabs virtualization report was created by several in-house CableLabs engineers, but also by engineers at member companies. They include Arris, Netcracker Technology Corp. , Nokia, Tibit Communications , Aricent Inc. , Huawei, Vecima Networks Inc. (Toronto: VCM) and Cisco.

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

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