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Lessons From the App Store: The Benefits of Standardizing VNF Onboarding

Oren Marmur

The advent of NFV has promised to usher in an era of agile and fluid innovation in the telecom industry. Yet, until there is a standardized approach to introducing virtual network functions (VNFs) to virtual environments, this process will remain long-winded and over-complicated. I believe that communications service providers (CSPs), industry organizations and vendors can reap the benefits of a standardized approach and harness the power of the open source ecosystem.

Speed and simplicity are essential benefits linked with network functions virtualization (NFV) adoption. Paradoxically, the complexity associated with onboarding VNFs is proving to be a major disincentive to NFV adoption. Poor standardization for VNF modelling and packaging, and the lack of tools for the onboarding and lifecycle automation routines, are slowing NFV implementation. Furthermore, no two VNFs will be designed in the same way or have the same infrastructure and operational requirements. This means that each VNF has to be independently tested and certified by CSPs, which can be a timely and expensive process.

The consequence of this is a bottleneck scenario in which demand for agile software innovation is stifled by the complexity and length of time it takes to onboard VNFs. This particularly constrains CSPs from implementing VNFs from multiple vendors, which was an original goal of NFV.

A challenge faced by the telecom industry is that there is always more than one standardization body bidding for a prominent role in the introduction of new technology, each advocating one method over another. Fortunately, open source initiatives are slowly grinding into gear and helping to define common configuration and deployment methods from NFV. There is now a need for industry standards to better align in order to accelerate VNF adoption.

Be more like Apple
This is where the teleco industry can learn from tech giant Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) -- or, more specifically, from the company's App Store platform. Apple has the luxury of a monopoly over the applications admitted to its App Store. Applications must, for example, comply with Apple's security and performance regulations and specifications. In so doing, Apple ensures that all applications are compatible with all of its devices. This means that users can download, delete and re-download a huge number of standardized applications, utilizing their functions quickly and with ease. It's here that the telecom industry can take inspiration and begin reaping the rewards of standardization in regards to VNF onboarding.

For this model to be realized in telecoms, there needs to be a unified approach to VNFs across the industry. That's not to say that progress isn't being made; industry standards are emerging and open source initiatives are helping to define common configuration and deployment methods.

Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP) , in particular, was a hugely positive development. The platform has essentially created an open source community which makes it significantly easier for vendors to collaborate. The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) has been similarly engaged in the endorsement of standardization, and has an established commitment to driving the adoption of standards across industry.

However, to really address the complexities of onboarding VNFs, standardization bodies will need to move away from siloed unilateral approaches and align more closely. There needs to be a more defined approach for NFV management and orchestration (MANO), which sets a common method for codifying VNFs and the associate lifecycle routines. In doing so, developers will be able to tap in to, and profit from, a far more fluid and agile open source environment.

What are the benefits?
If a consensus can be reached and standardization of the onboarding of VNFs is adopted across the industry, the benefits to service providers could be considerable. First of all, there will be a significant increase in the volume of VNFs being onboarded. A standardized approach would alleviate the bottleneck that currently inhibits VNF onboarding and accelerate NFV adoption by establishing a system for the automation of testing. To provide a quantitative indication of the value of onboarding automation -- the business goal is to reduce the time it takes to introduce a new service from nine to 12 months (under the current practice of introducing new services from design through testing and packaging) to fewer than six weeks.

Through regulated and uniform testing, onboarding will become far more streamlined, facilitating the service agility and flexibility of functions needed to drive the wider ecosystem. To revisit the earlier Apple analogy, users of the App Store can choose from a wide range of applications, each of which are designed to meet particular specifications. They're standardized to be compatible with Apple products. These applications can be downloaded, tested and, if not satisfactory, removed all within a matter of seconds. This simplicity and fluidity allows users to capitalize on the full range of functions available to them. In the same way, standardizing the onboarding of VNFs would enable vendors to harness the power of the open source ecosystem.

It is this kind of self-sustainable environment that drives the App Store platform and should motivate open source players to align on standardization. The more VNFs are onboarded, the more interest the ecosystem will generate. An open, collaborative community of this nature will only serve to encourage and nurture swift and agile open source innovation. The App Store analogy paints a promising picture of what the open source environment might look like if a standardized approach to onboarding VNFs can be implemented.

Fortunately, the industry has acknowledged this and recent developments would suggest that this is not too far from becoming a reality.

— Oren Marmur, Vice President, Head of NFV, Amdocs

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