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Carriers Collaborate on Network of the Future

Ray Le Maistre

DARMSTADT, Germany -- SDN & OpenFlow World Congress -- Thirteen major communications service providers have joined forces to create a new carrier-led Industry Specifications Group under the auspices of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) to tackle the challenges of building future networks that take advantage of virtualization technologies.

The aim is to get the telecom and IT sector working together to identify a "new network production environment based on virtualization technology" to help lower costs and boost efficiencies.

But while ETSI is providing the new body with a home – it approved the new group Tuesday morning -- this is a not a standards group and it's not a regional initiative, but a global body looking to communicate the shared requirements of the world's telcos. And it's growing day by day.

The group is focused on Network Functions Virtualization (NFV), as Light Reading revealed Monday. (See Tier 1 Carriers Tackle Telco SDN.)

At that point there were 10 operators involved -- now there are 13. They are (in alphabetical order):

Deutsche Telekom network architect Uwe Michel officially introduced the group here Tuesday, noting that interest from the carrier community was strong. "If this event had been a few days later we would have been talking about 15 or 16 carriers," he noted.

So what are these operators looking for?

Well, the new network will not be built from a large number of different elements with separate functionality, but rather a collection of high volume servers, storage elements, Ethernet switches and IT systems able to run applications from independent developers, Michel explained.

"There are a lot of potential benefits for operators," not only in terms of cutting costs but also in revamping operations. "Some of you will like that idea, others not," he added, addressing a room of carriers and vendors. (I think we know which ones will like it the most....)

But there's a long way to go before networks can be redesigned. "There are many challenges, not just benefits," noted the DT man. "We have to have five-nines reliability, security," and the ability to automate a network that comprises hundreds of virtual machines. "So we want the telecom and IT industries to combine their competencies in a collaborative joint effort on network requirements," stated Michel, noting that he should be careful not to say the group was engaging in "standards work."

To get the ball rolling the group's initial members, who are set to meet here in Darmstadt to discuss progress, have already co-authored a white paper on Network Functions Virtualization and now they're looking for further contributors. "It's not just open to ETSI members -- anyone who wants to sign up can do so," and the first official meeting of the group will be held in January 2013.

So can this group achieve its aims?

Infonetics Research Inc. principal analyst Michael Howard says that although many in the comms sector might sigh at the creation of yet another industry body, the good news is that this is not a marketing group. "This group has a lot of the biggest carriers in the world -- collectively they command a lot of the world's capex. That's a lot of buying power. And others will join. Ultimately I think this will speed up a process that would have happened anyway."

Howard also notes that this group is about broad network virtualization and not just software defined networking (SDN), which is "just one branch of the virtualization tree."

The Infonetics man also provided some insight into why ETSI is the home for this group. He said he had spoken with Don Clarke, network innovation strategy manager at BT, one of the key individuals in the NFV group, about the role of ETSI: Clarke explained that ETSI is a legal entity that already had a process for the creation of new industry working groups. "It was a shell waiting to be used," noted Howard.

— Ray Le Maistre, International Managing Editor, Light Reading

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