While it's intuitively obvious that software-defined and virtualized networks hold the key to the future of communications and data services, intuition is a bad way of making strategic business decisions. Before making the big transition from conventional hardware-based networking to SDN and NFV, network operators need some way to test intuition against reality: Virtual CPE can be that test.
As an industry, we've been talking to death about the benefits of SDN and NFV. You've heard it a million times. C'mon, say it with me now everybody: SDN and NFV can reduce capex and opex by allowing network operators to make changes rapidly and programmatically in software, rather than using CLIs or having to send technicians out to make physical changes in network equipment. The benefits go beyond just saving costs -- SDN and NFV can reduce time-to-market for new services from days, weeks, and months to minutes and hours, allowing customers to configure new services themselves through a browser-based control panel.
Sounds great in theory.
You know what else sounded great in theory? A TV series set on the glamorous world of an atomic train! That didn't work, as you can see below. So you'd better find a way to test the virtues of software networking before something like this happens to you:
That's where virtual CPE comes in.
Customer premises equipment has several characteristics that make it ideal as a place to test the theoretical benefits of software networking -- NFV in particular -- to make sure the theory aligns with reality, before investing big in software networking.
The benefits of using virtual CPE for a software networking trial include:
Virtual CPE can be contained. You can deploy virtual CPE to a single customer, to a group of customers, or to an entire geographic region, without having to involve the whole network. The trial can be confined to a portion of the network as small and large as you want.
Virtual CPE benefits are measurable. You know how much it costs to deploy conventional CPE. You can figure out the costs of virtual CPE. You know what you're charging customers for their CPE. Measuring the financial impact of introducing virtual CPE is just simple arithmetic. It's elementary!
The potential cost and pain reductions are big. Like I said earlier, reconfiguring physical networks often requires hardware reconfiguration, and that's particularly difficult because your customer premises equipment is (and this is a difficult concept, so stay with me) not here, on your network. It's over there on the customer premises. Physical CPE installation and reconfiguration requires sending a flesh-and-blood human being out to install new hardware (the industry jargon is a "truck roll," which I love), and then if the customer wants to make a change, you need to do another truck roll to reconfigure or swap out the hardware.
With virtual CPE, you often have just one truck roll, to set up the appliance on which the virtual CPE runs. After that, reconfigurations and upgrades can be managed remotely. Or you just drop-ship the appliance, and instruct someone on the customer premises to plug in the power and connect the network.
NFV and virtual CPE are in close alignment. NFV is all about virtualizing network functions such as firewalls and VPNs. These are the very same functions very likely to be deployed as CPE.
Virtual CPE is seeing real-world deployment. Colt Technology Services Group Ltd provides virtual CPE and is looking to upgrade its management layer to meet the demand. And Telefónica looked to virtual CPE as part of its ambitious UNICA network upgrade disclosed a year ago. (See Colt Preps Next-Gen OSS for NFV, SDN, Colt Pulls the Trigger on Data Center Virtualization and Telefónica Unveils Aggressive NFV Plans.)
On the vendor side, Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD) cited virtual CPE as one of the emerging use cases for its Vyatta Controller SDN software. Virtual CPE is driving RAD Data Communications Ltd. 's Distributed NFV vision, as well as Overture Networks Inc. 's Virtual Service Edge platform. (See Brocade: Vyatta Controller 'Use Cases Are Crystallizing' , RAD Pushes Distributed NFV Forward, Overture Adds Hardware to Its NFV Pitch , Overture Trials NFV Software With Hidden Punch.)
Virtual CPE makes a great test for the benefits of SDN. Once you've demonstrated success for virtual CPE, you're on firmer ground for taking on the really big job of virtualizing a whole lot more of the network.