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Cox's Athena to Virtualize Home Network

DENVER -- Cable Next-Gen Technologies and Strategies -- Through an ambitious proof-of-concept known as Athena, Cox Communications is intending to move the complexity of in-home networks into the cloud, to make things easier for its customers and tech support staff and better for its own bottom line, Executive Director of Strategic Architecture Jeff Finkelstein told the crowd here today.

Athena creates a new network services architecture that builds on existing technologies and serves as the platform from which new services can be more quickly launched.

Through virtualization of home CPE and creation of highly secure personal clouds, Cox Communications Inc. intends to give customers access to content and data from wherever they are, but it is also focused on ending needless truck rolls to address common problems such as forgotten WiFi passwords, he said.

The cable industry "has created a very complex environment for ourselves," Finkelstein said, by adding diverse technologies, network gear and operations software to its mix. Complexity is also now taking root in the home, with services such as home automation and security and with an explosion of connected devices, routers and gateways.

The result of all this complexity is consumer frustration, which can spill over to technical support staff who can't always unravel problems quickly, and even impact the CFO's office, when it produces "TCTRs -- trouble call truck rolls" that drive up costs, he noted.

What Athena is intended to do is virtualize the CPE in the consumer's home, so that services can be added without adding new devices by moving the complexity into the cloud. "I like to talk about a virtual gateway, which takes the complexity out of the device and moves it into the cloud," he said. "We simplify the customer's life."


Read more about cable NFV strategies and the challenges of orchestration in our NFV section here on Light Reading.

Traffic that stays inside the home is carried as a layer 2 service and that is extended into the cloud for traffic that needs to travel the Internet. Key to this approach is guaranteeing both the security of data in transit and the privacy of data as it is stored, Finkelstein notes. Cox is looking to use secure tunnels to connect the in-home devices to the cloud-based resources, as well as encryption of the data.

Athena will draw on work currently underway at CableLabs on virtual CPE, as well as virtualization work taking place across telecom, Finkelstein said, as Cox is involved with multiple standards groups.

"We are working at the upper layer, at the cloud layer, on how to bring all this under one umbrella and manage it through APIs, he said. Today a lot of that work is building on established industry standards such as the Broadband Forum 's TR-69 and TR-181 standards for remote diagnostics as well as NetConf, the network configuration protocol, and Yang, the data modeling language.

A virtualized home environment would serve customers better in multiple ways, Finkelstein noted. In addition to eliminating the problems that stem from trying to manage complexity, it could also help customers access content remotely, impose parental controls on content on mobile devices as well as in the home, stay up-to-date on virus and security patches and gain access more quickly to new services.

Cox will be able to try out new service offerings using a dev/ops approach, eliminating extensive and costly regression testing and getting things to market much faster, he added. Operating costs should go down with the elimination of needless trouble calls and capex would drop with the elimination of multiple devices deployed in the home as well.

Part of Athena is also to develop administration of this new cloud, however, and Finkelstein admits that is a key element. There will be new demands for combining a matrix of extensive customer information -- who has paid for what service, for example -- with the ability to locate the content on the Internet.

If the current complexity seems challenging, he said, "It's nothing compared to what's on the horizon."

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

kq4ym 3/18/2015 | 11:33:33 AM
Re: Good move Getting to the point of less confusion to consumers seems to be one leadin value, "The result of all this complexity is consumer frustration, which can spill over to technical support staff who can't always unravel problems quickly." If vitualization and the cloud can help it's probably going to benefit Cox and the bottom line eventually.
VictorRBlake 3/17/2015 | 9:50:31 PM
Provider advantage There's definitely a play here in that the resi service provider has the proximity (translated -- latency) advantage over OTT solutions for cloud based services. I think that the trick here is to have a well integrated mix of cable originated cloud services -- for example nDVR, with brand name services that consumers will recognize -- and then package them so that they integrated. Imagine, for example, nDVR + cloud backup of media, integrated with Box, DropBox, Amzn Cloud, or OneDrive, then sharing my home videos, so that they are available on my familes nDVRs ? Pretty cool stuff, and if played correctly its all API magic as the content and APIs can be a mix of external (call it third party) cloud based services + the cable operator's own services. This is afterall the goal of the cloud, seamless integration across various functions.

Alot of the nfv work is focused on internal orchestration which is good and makes sense to tackle first. But the next step is going to be building those third party api gateways. There are some ideas to learn from VAS and prior web services apis, but the scale and complexity here, along with the speed (agility) is much more challenging.
Mitch Wagner 3/17/2015 | 8:07:25 PM
Re: Good move Are cable companies and carriers getting into the home networking business? Perhaps working with partners? I'm sure plenty of consumers would pay to have their ISP also configure Internet access throughout the whole house.
cnwedit 3/17/2015 | 6:16:12 PM
Re: Good move This is also a major pain point for the cable companies - one of the things Jeff pointed out is that more than 50% of the trouble calls for Cox's WiFi service are from customers who've forgotten their WiFi passcodes, and resetting those remotely isn't always a slam dunk. So it winds up costing a lot of money for something simple that is totally out of the cable company's control.
Mitch Wagner 3/17/2015 | 4:18:43 PM
Good move Back in the good old days of the 90s, customers had zero or one Internet-connected device -- their computer. Now, homes have a half-dozen devices at least, requiring their own IT departments (comprising Mom, Dad, or a smart teenager). That IT/network administration frequently gets sloughed off on the consumer Internet service provider. So Cox's move here makes sense -- it reduces cost and increases customer satisfaction. 
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