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NFV/SDN: Huawei Looks to the Clouds, Carriers Still On a Journey

Ken Wieland, for Huawei
Partner Perspectives
Ken Wieland, for Huawei

THE HAGUE -- SDN NFV World Congress -- "Everybody's talking about NFV, NFV, NFV," says Zhang Yu, chief architect of carrier data center solution at Huawei Technologies. "But virtualisation is not enough to describe the industry and what we're doing right now. The Cloud will be the foundation of the future telco world."

Zhang also believes that telco digital transformation can be accelerated as long as operators develop their networks from an architectural viewpoint, which is where Huawei's network functions cloudification (NFC) system comes in. He shared these views at the Network Transformation seminar hosted by Huawei at the recent SDN NFV World Congress in The Hague, Netherlands.

NFC, in a nutshell, means shunting every bit of network equipment, O&M capabilities and digital services to the cloud, to achieve the ROADS experience of carrier network -- i.e. Real-time, On-demand, All-online, DIY and Social. Only then, suggests Zhang, can operators fully realise the cost efficiencies of digital transformation and achieve the levels of service agility they are after.

However, Zhang recognises that sweeping transformation of this sort is far from easy.

Reflecting on the five years since a bunch of big-name operators established the NFV Industry Specification Group (ISG) at the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), a move designed to push NFV forward, Jiang Xue, Huawei's VP of carrier IT sales, called for a more pragmatic approach. "We shouldn't just talk about the vision, but industry challenges slowing down transformation," he said. "Digital transformation must be done, it's vital, but progress hasn't matched the vision."

Pain points
The challenges Huawei flagged at its seminar, which included operator input from Etisalat, were ones that weighed heavily on the minds of senior operator executives speaking at the SDN NFV event. A number of questions kept on resurfacing, time and time again, in The Hague: How to build compelling use cases? How to manage and monitor network complexity when the service layer is decoupled from the infrastructure layer? How to integrate with legacy systems? How to achieve the Holy Grail of zero-touch and full automation? Interoperability between virtual network functions (VNFs) and NFV infrastructure (NFVi) from different vendors was another pressing issue.

Organisational challenges also featured prominently, both in Huawei's seminar and the wider congress event. One of the biggest headaches for Deutsche Telekom, China Unicom, KPN and Verizon Communications -- each of which gave presentations -- was how to move away from siloed organisational structures and attract software talent.

Arash Ashouriha, deputy CTO of Deutsche Telekom, reckoned technology represented only 10% of the difficulty in shifting to a software-based and cloud-native world of micro-services. The remaining 90%, he said, was a people and organizational problem. In the non-virtual world, particular ‘boxes' in the network supported a particular application involving dedicated teams. With cloudification and softwarisatizion, said Ashouriha, you have shared platforms that serve multiple project teams, which creates new organizational challenges. "This is a huge and difficult change to implement [on employees]," he added. "And you can't just impose change on them. You need to set up a change programme and take them with you."

The vaulting ambition of KPN, said André Beijen, who heads up the carrier's network innovation, is none other than to become a software engineering company. To try and get around the software skills-shortage problem, Beijen said KPN had embarked on programmes to educate its own staff.

Beyond NFV
Aimed at addressing many of the telco transformation challenges facing industry, Huawei is pushing the NFC concept. The key attributes of Huawei's NFC architecture -- which uses an OpenStack-based NFVi as its foundation -- are, according to Zhang: Carrier-grade; evolution-orientated (designed to match the needs of evolving new business requirements); and open.

To achieve carrier-grade, Huawei focuses on performance, reliability and security to help the carriers address the technical risks in network transformation. Also, Huawei is working on greater compute performance through the introduction of an FPGA-based accelerator into its NFVi solution.

To match the evolving new business requirements, a distributed and multi-layer data center (DC) architecture lies at the heart of Huawei's NFC system, which plots a path to supporting 5G and multiple IoT applications with different performance requirements. A multi-layer architecture of infrastructure can help the carriers to locate various services in appropriate data centers with suitable resources and network latency – for example, MANO at the central data center, and MEC (multi-access edge computing) at the edge.

Yuan Bo, VP of network architecture transformation at Huawei's carrier business unit -- who gave a presentation at SDN NFV Congress -- also spoke enthusiastically about a cloud-based Test-as-a-Service (TaaS) capability launched by the Chinese supplier. Yuan thinks this will be vital for system integration with multi-vendor legacy systems. Based on a cloud architecture, said Yuan, software will be more quickly optimised for testing than it would using legacy systems "I imagine if you were still using the traditional way to test, it would be a disaster for the cloud architecture," he said. "Our cloud-based tools make testing more precise."

Huawei is taking NFC very seriously: According to Yuan, between 7,000 and 8,000 engineers are working on it.

To make NFV and SDN more exciting, and quicken the pulses of operator CEOs and CFOs, Zhang told Light Reading it was not enough to focus on the likes of virtualising traditional telco functions, such as EPC and IMS. Emergent new services, such as 5G and IoT, also provide a major motivation for NFV to be deployed in production environments. Furthermore, it is easier to start NFC from new services.

Zhang's suggestion was warmly embraced by Ali Alkaff, director of emerging technologies at Etisalat. Speaking during a Q&A session at Huawei's seminar, however, Alkaff made a suggestion of his own about how carriers might strike a closer relationship with vendors and, in doing so, better equip themselves for a more virtualized future.

Operators onboarded?
Despite optimistic supplier messages about technical advances, operators are struggling to push NFV and SDN into full swing – at least if the senior executives speaking in The Hague were anything to go by.

DT's Ashouriha could not hide his disappointment about what he thought was a slow pace of progress. "In theory, there are all sorts of possibilities with cloudification and softwarization to combine multiple things," he said. "In reality, though, only some combinations of the infrastructure stack and applications really work, and only a subset of that is telco grade."

Ashouriha added that industry had tried to push both sides -- infrastructure and applications -- but, looking back, he thought the effort was a failure. "There is a mismatch between how apps are designed and how to make best use of a common infrastructure," he continued. "Remember, this whole thing was set up to move operators away from stone age production models, with monolithic racks, and move into automation and all the benefits that brings. We've still got a long way to. Applications and infrastructure need to go hand in hand, but still a wall exists between the two. It's not only there on the operators' side but also the suppliers' side too, where it's perhaps even thicker. As an industry we all need to work together to bring this wall down."

For its part, Huawei said it was doing its bit on OpenStack interoperability. Focused on hardware, VNFs and MANO, the supplier has set up various open labs across Europe and Asia – at a cost of around $60 million, said Yuan – and set up its own certification programme. According to Huawei, it has more than 30 partners that can happily interoperate with its own equipment.

Khaled Samahi, Etisalat's director of telco cloud, said that, to try and address the shortcomings related to vendor interoperability, Etisalat had built its own testing lab. "My advice to carriers is to see interoperability for yourselves, whether in your own lab or at vendors' labs," he said. "You need to see it with your own eyes." While welcoming Huawei's efforts, said more interoperability work needed to be done at an industry-wide level.

This article was sponsored by Huawei Technologies.

— Ken Wieland, Contributing Editor, Light Reading

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