In my previous column, I wrote about the opportunities Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) offers mobile operators, especially in the core network. (See 5 Opportunities for NFV in the 4G Core Network.)
In this piece, I discuss some of the reasons why NFV is not yet ready for prime time. I'm paraphrasing, of course, but in my work with mobile operator technology executives, I know these are the sentiments widely held by the people responsible for designing and operating 4G core networks.
In no particular order:
1. Immature technology and product availability: The performance of virtualized network functions (VNFs) is not yet equivalent to today's built-for-purpose products, or even sufficiently close to it. Reliability is also an unknown quantity and must be approached with a fundamentally different mindset. The even bigger challenge is that most operators are not close to being able to run VNFs in a "cloud" environment. This is a solvable problem, it's just too early.
2. Operational processes: You can have the most progressive CTO team in the world, but unless the proposed solution is accepted by the team responsible for running that part of the network, and making sure it hits the reliability and performance targets, it won't make much difference. Operators are used to buying "vertically assured" products from vendors that will stand by the box if something goes wrong. Changing this mindset at an abstract level is one thing. At an operational level it is quite another.
3. Investment cycle: Progressive operators have recently installed a new evolved packet core (EPC), and related core network elements, to support the introduction of LTE. Many have also recently closed tenders for IMS/VoLTE. It is out of the question to revisit these investments for at least the next three years. Any virtualized solution must be positioned with this market context very much in mind.
4. Adding new NFV platforms increases opex: Using a virtual EPC as part of a "cap and grow" strategy alongside the existing core network is commonly proposed. But while a parallel core network may make sense in terms of being able to experiment with NFV for less critical services, such as M2M, it also adds costs through duplication. This especially impacts operating costs and results in the exact opposite of what NFV promised at the outset -- reduced opex.
5. Need to identify use-cases: If the mobile network operator is basically in the business of selling Internet access, there are limited opportunities to do clever things in the services domain. So while NFV promises greater software-configurable service agility, without clear use-cases and revenue models, it's hard for mobile operators to make the business case. Whisper it, but in this respect NFV is a little like IMS.
The operators I speak with say none of these reasons alone, or even in combination, mean NFV won't happen. The challenge is to identify NFV use-cases that navigate these challenges without throwing decades of accumulated learning out the window.
And, of course, there is also a risk of being over-cautious and hamstrung by legacy processes.
Never a simple life, huh?
— Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading
Interested in learning more on this topic? Then come to Ethernet & SDN Expo, a Light Reading Live event that takes place Oct. 2-3, 2013 at the Javits Center in New York City. Co-located with Interop, Light Reading's Ethernet & SDN Expo will focus on how the convergence of Carrier Ethernet 2.0 with emerging carrier software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization technologies could change the whole telecom landscape for service providers. For more information, or to register, click here.