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Cloud Native/NFV

Network virtualization poised to seize a bigger role in cable's post-pandemic era

CABLE NEXT-GEN EUROPE DIGITAL SYMPOSIUM – Cable operators are set to embrace network virtualization and the use of "light touch," automation techniques at a much larger scale in the wake of the pandemic, predicts a CommScope exec.

When lockdowns start to loosen and more normal patterns of network usage return, the cable industry should witness heightened usage of remote-based network models, Dave Keane-Mirajkar, CommScope's RVP, solutions architecture, global service providers for EMEA and APAC, said last week during a keynote on network virtualization at the Light Reading event. "There's a new normal being established at the moment," he said.

That new normal will enter play after cable networks around the world saw a spike in both upstream and downstream traffic during the early part of the pandemic before usage started to flatten out. Per the NCTA's COVID-19 Dashboard, which tabulates network data from several US cable operators, peak upstream growth has increased 5.1% since March 1 while peak downstream usage has risen 6.6%.

Although usage demand has settled down of late, operators will increasingly turn to virtualization techniques to dial up capacity in the post-pandemic world, Keane-Mirajkar said. He noted that CommScope is tackling that through a mix of products for cable ops, including a virtual management plane, a virtual cable modem termination system (CMTS) core and a virtualized headend platform, that focus on microservices and form the foundation of a Flexible MAC Architecture (FMA) for the network's control and management plane.

CableLabs, meanwhile, is helping to address cable's network virtualization challenge with Adrenaline, a project that supports a centrally managed, distributed and heterogeneous compute platform.

In a follow-up session focused on cable's virtualization efforts, Randy Levensalor, CableLabs's principal architect, said the industry is well along the path of a "first wave" centering on basic building blocks that make large objects look like physical appliances. Cable, he said, is now moving into the second, cloud-native phase, which is focused on breaking the network down into smaller components and employing the use of open source technologies like Kubernetes.

After that, he expects more "closed loop automation" to enter the picture via more network convergence and the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to help optimize the network and make the data plane more programmable.

While a pivot to virtualization will help cable operators shave costs, it's also about transitioning the architecture to one that is more agile and supports speedier service velocity, Daniel Etman, a business development exec within the access networks unit at Harmonic, explained.

If there's one thing operators have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it's that they need a software-powered architecture in place to deploy services at much faster rates than can be done with traditional "big iron" products, he said.

"Virtualization is all about making the software smarter, not making the hardware smarter," Etman said.

Other benefits
Anders Bloom, senior systems architect, broadband HFC development at Tele2 AB in Sweden, touted the reliability and stabilization elements that virtualization will introduce to the cable network. In the traditional "big box" days, if something broke, the operator had to reset the box. With software and virtualization, "if a function breaks, you only have to restart that function," he said.

Bloom speaks from experience, as Tele2 has been shifting toward virtualization and a software-based CMTS platform in recent years and migrating away from legacy, purpose-built cable network hardware. Tele2 is rolling out virtualization in tandem with a distributed access architecture, and has tens of thousands of customers on the DAA portion of the network.

DAA and virtualization "fit very well together," Bloom said.

As DAA starts to take hold in some cable networks, Levensalor noted that the "edge" of the network has become a moving target. Depending on the application and the operator's perspective, it could continue to be located at the headend, down at the node or even further down the chain in the customer premises.

CommScope's Keane-Mirajkar stressed that most operators aren't working in a greenfield environment, however, and so must be cognizant of the need to integrate their legacy hardware into a new virtualized plane. An umbrella architecture must be established to manage and support that transition, he said.

"It's no longer going to be a discussion of a virtual CMTS or a legacy CMTS … but a complete virtualization strategy, and it's happening," Etman said.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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