The cable industry is currently undergoing a "once-in-a-lifetime" phase of network upgrades in preparation for the next generation of fixed and wireless broadband services. In a four-part series, Light Reading is exploring the causes and effects of this network transformation, including the contributing financial and technological factors, and the strategies that cable operators are pursuing on the road toward new distributed and virtualized network architectures. In the third installment today, we move on to the software systems under development for controlling virtual cable network functions. As the industry moves toward an era of automation, cable vendors are now competing to land in the "virtual" driver's seat.
Bring on the automation
When Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) CTO Marcus Weldon spoke about the start of the "Automation of Everything" revolution at the SCTE Cable-Tec Expo event in Philadelphia last month, he was tapping into the cable industry's impulse to shift time-consuming and expensive hardware-based network functions into agile, more cost-effective software environments. Why manually configure hardware when software can optimize network functions automatically? (See also Nokia: Why Web Scale Alone Can't Win.)
Weldon thinks the automation age will be so big that the past 20 years will be seen in the future as just a precursor to the real digital event. And that real event will fundamentally change the way we interact with information and entertainment, enabling connected, contextually-relevant everything.
To bring Weldon's discussion back down to Earth, Andy Smith, distinguished engineer and chief architect for Cable MSO Networks at Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR), talks about the next phase of cable network evolution in more practical terms. At Light Reading's Virtualizing the Cable Architecture breakfast session at Cable-Tec Expo, Smith emphasized the limitations of hardware that can be overcome in software. There is a finite number of permutations possible with physical ports, for example, that doesn't exist in a software-based system. By taking away these types of limitations, network operators will be able to do more with their infrastructure, and do it faster.
Smith also tackled the buzzwords pouring out of the industry at the moment.
"When people say virtualization, what they really mean is software," noted Smith. "And when they say SDN... what they really mean is automation."
At the same breakfast session, Justin Paul, head of OSS Marketing at Amdocs Ltd. (NYSE: DOX), went even a step further by defining the importance of SDN for cable and using another favorite buzzword, orchestration.
"Ninety percent of the money spent in virtualization is on virtual network functions... but the 10% or so that remains is around the orchestration and management of those networks," said Paul, "and that is the critical area going forward because it's the orchestration and management where you get the benefits and financial gain from virtualization."
Importantly, Paul is only one of the many people now talking about the significance of orchestration to the cable industry. Orchestration -- or automation -- is such a hot topic that it's comparable to the emergence of IP video at cable conferences circa 2008. Every cable operator wants to understand the potential impact of orchestrating network operations in software, and every cable vendor wants to deliver on orchestration's substantial promise.
Despite cable's very clear adoption of the principles of software-defined networking, the industry is still in the very early stages of testing out how to put SDN into practice. Two of the biggest cable vendors, Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS) and Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), haven't announced software orchestration products yet, but both companies recognize the implications of getting to market with software controllers and suggest they're working behind the scenes to develop solutions.
Arris, according to CEO Bruce McClelland, likes to be "conservative" with its announcements during the technology development phase, but he acknowledges that orchestration is "going to be hugely important."
Cisco Vice President of Cable Access Sean Welch says "automation is really our only option" and hints there's more to come from his company on the orchestration front in the near future.
At Cable-Tec Expo, Casa announced its virtual CCAP solution, which conveniently plugs in to the company's broader Axyom software architecture. (See Casa Joins Virtual CCAP Parade.)
Casa started working on Axyom about two and a half years ago, and more recently has begun to add on different virtualized functions, including the virtual CCAP offering and another virtualized WiFi networking product. The company announced Interop Technologies as the first customer for its Axyom-based WiFi solution less than a month ago.
Beyond the virtual network function (VNF) products, Casa sees an opportunity to use software controllers to re-imagine how network functions are deployed.
"There's an opportunity to rethink how we handle these functions," says Casa's head of global marketing, Paul Hanna, pointing out as an example that in the future every function shouldn't need its own security layer. Instead, a single security layer could be developed and managed for a multitude of functions.
Harmonic also had a big announcement at Cable-Tec Expo. After failing to gain much traction with its NSG Pro CCAP product among cable operators, the vendor abruptly leapfrogged its own solution with the launch of a virtualized CCAP offering called CableOS. CableOS moves the management of network nodes and edge devices into a software platform running on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. (See How Harmonic Aims to Disrupt CCAP Market.)
It would be tempting to dismiss the Harmonic announcement as only a wishful do-over attempt, but there's every sign the company has created a viable cable SDN solution. Not only does Harmonic say it's in trials with multiple Tier 1 operators, and that it expects its first commercial deployments to take place this fall, but Comcast has put its money on CableOS by announcing a warrant agreement with Harmonic and tying incentives to CableOS sales. (See Harmonic's New Comcast Deal Oozes Subtext.)
And then there's Nokia. The roots of Nokia's new cable network solution go back years through the solution's development at the startup company Gainspeed. Following Nokia's acquisition of Gainspeed over the summer, the company took the opportunity at Cable-Tec Expo to combine the elements of the startup's distributed CCAP platform with a product called the Gainspeed Access Controller, described as a "software-driven orchestration tool for managing network nodes." Nokia launched the entire portfolio as a "unified cable access solution," and it bears all the hallmarks of a next-generation cable SDN platform. (See Nokia Debuts Virtualized Cable Access Platform.)
There are no announced cable SDN deployments to date, or even announced field trials, but it's only a matter of time. Already, the early rush for customers for new network orchestration software has begun.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading