Virtualization has arrived in the cable access network.
Harmonic Inc. (Nasdaq: HLIT) is announcing today that Swedish cable operator Com Hem AB is in the midst of rolling out the vendor's CableOS CCAP solution, a software-based technology that replaces the traditional cable modem termination system (CMTS) or converged cable access platform (CCAP). The news is notable because Com Hem is the first named customer for CableOS, and CableOS is one of a very few fully virtualized CCAP solutions available anywhere in the world.
There are several problems with legacy cable access network hardware. First, it's putting a strain on space and power resources as operators work to expand network capacity. Second, it creates dependency on a relatively small selection of hardware vendors. And third, it limits operators' flexibility to turn up new broadband services and tailor delivery to the needs of different customer service groups.
Because of all of these factors, the cable industry is working hard to shift many of the functions of traditional access hardware into software. But the process isn't swift.
Many cable network vendors are offering some network virtualization through software-controlled Remote PHY solutions. Remote PHY is considered an intermediate step on the road to full virtualization because the technology delivers new flexibility through software management and limits the number of new CCAP chassis that need to be deployed. However, few vendors are marketing a fully virtualized CCAP solution.
The exceptions are Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), which has deployed virtual CCAP technology with WideOpenWest Holdings LLC (WOW) , and Casa Systems Inc. , which currently has a virtual CCAP core solution in field trials. (See In Cable First, WOW Distributes & Virtualizes the Access Network and Casa Starts vCCAP Field Trials.)
However, Harmonic believes it's gone a step further with its purpose-built software solution. As far as deployments of a fully virtualized CCAP core go, Asaf Matatyaou, a vice president with the Harmonic cable edge business, says, "We are very confident ... that we are the first."
Com Hem is not a new customer for Harmonic. The Swedish operator previously purchased Harmonic's NSG Pro edge QAMs and deployed them along with other vendor hardware in a modular CMTS environment. Today, however, the CableOS solution is being deployed across the Com Hem network on commercial off-the-shelf hardware, and while there's no public timeline for completion, Harmonic says the project is already well underway.
Although CableOS can be implemented in a centralized or distributed architecture, Com Hem is keeping CCAP functions centralized currently, meaning it's not distributing elements of the CCAP farther out toward the network edge.
Separate from the widespread CableOS deployment, Com Hem also announced last week that it's testing symmetrical speeds of 1.2 gigabits per second at a trial site using DOCSIS 3.1 technology. That high-speed service won't go into commercial launch until 2019, but Harmonic says CableOS is also helping to power the trial.
So far, Harmonic hasn't revealed who its other CableOS customers are, but it has confirmed deployments in North America and Europe, as well as trials all around the world. The company also signed a warrant agreement with Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) in late 2016 giving the operator incentive to buy the CableOS solution with the offer of a potential investment stake in Harmonic. (See Harmonic's New Comcast Deal Oozes Subtext.)
According to Matatyaou, customers are looking at different ways of migrating their systems to CableOS. Some are augmenting their networks where demand is high. Others are using CableOS for hub consolidation. Still others are considering actually ripping and replacing old CMTS hardware in order to expand capacity while reducing power, space and cooling requirements.
"In some cases they have no choice," explains Matatyaou. "Any way they look, they're running out of space. And [with] the rip-and-replace with CableOS, they're actually growing their broadband capacity and at the same time, even though they have this massive growth of processing power and performance, they're actually reducing their power, space and cooling needs."
Matatyaou highlights the fact that CableOS can create space and power savings of up to 75% or even 90% depending on the network architecture, a claim that rests on data from actual customer deployments.
"This is really exciting for us," says Matatyaou. "I think it's also exciting for the industry. It's an inflection point where something that was on paper and on slides is now real and in deployment."
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading