In 2013, when virtualization was becoming The Next Big Thing, the US cable industry's largest convention held its first panel session on network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN). The panelists did their best to describe how virtualization technologies could benefit cable, but in the end many of the audience members (including this writer) came away more confused than enlightened.
For cable, which comes from a legacy of hardware-based infrastructure, it has been difficult to translate the concepts of NFV and SDN into concrete action. Software and cloud networking no doubt can be used to manage and improve cable infrastructure and operations, but how can virtualization technologies actually be applied?
Lately, cable's technology community has been exploring the potential for virtualization across virtually every part of the cable distribution chain, with some intriguing possibilities and the potential for far-reaching effects. In a new Heavy Reading report, "Four Use Cases for Cable NFV & SDN Virtualization," we identify the key points of industry focus, including:
- Virtualized equipment functions: transforming equipment functions to software processes for the converged cable access platform (CCAP), customer premises equipment (CPE) and related management operations
- Self-service automation: giving customers greater capability to self-provision and manage their services
- Business services: supporting business interests in utilizing virtualization, cloud and service automation
- Energy savings: reducing physical space and power requirements by virtualizing equipment functions
Cable's leading providers, including Comcast, Charter Communications and Cox Communications, are involved in field trials, lab tests and case studies, while leading suppliers are exploring software applications and support processes, according to the report.
If these use cases take hold on a meaningful scale, cable providers will benefit through greater network efficiency, flexible customer management capabilities, facility and energy cost reductions and new revenue-generating opportunities, Heavy Reading says. Both residential and business customers will have more capability and flexibility to manage services through self-automation and take advantage of broadband capacity and new services.
Virtualization complements cable's interest in next-generation architectures, including distributed access architecture (DAA) and remote Physical Layer Protocol (PHY), which move more network functionality to the edge. Coupled with big data analytics (BDA), cable providers can increase their ability to manage bandwidth and services to more efficiently serve users and handle multiple devices, the report says. Eventually, software-based management will support new opportunities, including machine-to-machine (M2M) learning and Internet of Things (IoT) applications.
But cable faces many challenges before it can reach the virtualization Holy Land. The report discusses four primary challenges: unclear deployment strategies, lagging skill sets, standards debates and competitive disadvantages.
The recent SCTE/ISBE Cable-Tec Expo '16 included a heavy focus on virtualization, including a Light Reading breakfast session on the topic. Unlike the cable convention in 2013, panel sessions discussed concrete applications of virtualization, although they often were tampered with caution about the complex challenges ahead. It is expected to take five years or more for cable to significantly shake off its hardware legacy and implement virtual technologies.
— Craig Leddy, Contributing Analyst, Heavy Reading