One reason network functions virtualization (NFV) was an undercurrent of last week's Mobile World Congress is that 4G LTE provides a likely platform for demonstrating the concept.
One company after another at MWC described the evolved packet core (EPC) as "ripe" for virtualization -- that is, for being executed as software running on plain servers, rather than on specialized gear built from ASICs.
The mobile management entity (MME) -- the EPC's control plane -- would be another candidate, many said.
"In the LTE business now, it's a great place for a carrier to experiment. All our carriers are coming to us and saying, 'How big a core can you do?'" said Jeff Edlund, CTO of communications and media solutions at Hewlett-Packard Co.
It's all just getting started, and Light Reading didn't encounter a vendor that had a commercialized product. But many sources think the tremors behind virtualization will grow quickly.
"If you're a traditional hardware vendor, you've got some decisions to make," said Ray Mota, an analyst with ACG Research.
Juniper Networks Inc., for one, has already virtualized its packet core and was showing off the concept at MWC. Companies relying on specialized gear, such as Cisco Systems Inc. with its ASR 5000 (formerly Starent Networks's gear), will have to follow suit -- but there's a danger in going too far to the virtual side, too, Mota says.
"There's stuff you need high processing power for, and there is a capacity issue [with virtualization], so the smart vendors are going to offer hybrid solutions," Mota says. "The guys that go too far to the extreme -- those guys are the ones that are going to get in trouble."
Part of the promise behind NFV is cheaper hardware, but that's only the start.
"They talk about the capex savings of being able to leverage pools of hardware, but in reality, they want the opex savings -- being able to offer new services faster," says Sean Duggan, a product manager with F5 Networks Inc.
At MWC, Intel Corp. was showing off a virtualized packet core for LTE and 3G, using an IP stack from Scandinavian systems integrator Tieto Corp. The demo showed OpenStack turning virtual machines up and down according to demand and shifting the work to as few processors as necessary -- essentially making the EPC expand and shrink.
Intel's William Redmond (in blue) shows off the virtual EPC, which consists of little squares floating high above planet earth.
Intel, with its chip focus, slanted the demo towards the power savings of virtualization. Intel also showed how the KVM hypervisor can be programmed to drop hints to the processors, prodding them to turn their clock frequencies down to save power (or up, to accommodate bursts in traffic).
Code for KVM enhancements like that will be made publicly available, said William Redmond, a platform architect with Intel.
The wired side
The EPC isn't the only area that NFV is targeting, though. A couple of companies at MWC talked up the potential of wireline virtualization.
"The areas the operators are looking to virtualize first are the fixed-side broadband gateways," F5's Duggan said.
Orange SA, for example, is considering putting vanilla equipment into the home. "They deploy a very dumb Layer 2 device into the home, and the customer's router and all that stuff sits in the cloud," Duggan says.
Policy and mediation are other areas where carriers see virtualization potential -- as is the broadband remote access server (B-RAS), HP's Edlund said. "No one's deployed yet. I think they're very afraid, because B-RAS is a pretty complex piece of silicon" and carriers are chicken about messing with certain parts of the network that already work smoothly. (He didn't quite phrase it like that.)
For all its potential, though, most of the discussion around virtualization is still just talk.
"The conversations I'm having with the telcos are about things going into the innovation labs. It still feels very 'discovery,'" said Jason Needham, F5's director of product management.
â€” Craig Matsumoto, Managing Editor, Light Reading