BT has made a firm commitment to the emerging technique of "containerization," indicating it will play a key role in the operator's NFV plans.
Neil McRae, BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA)'s chief network architect, told attendees at the Broadband World Forum (BBWF) in London last week week the UK fixed-line incumbent was working on developing a "containerized platform" that would support the kind of service agility typically associated with over-the-top players.
Containerization would allow a service provider to run applications inside software "containers" sitting on top of the Linux operating system, representing an alternative to the use of virtual machines that include guest operating systems and, therefore, a lot more IT overhead.
It is an approach that is attracting interest from many Tier 1 operators desperate to find the most efficient way to introduce virtual network functions. (See Containers a Critical Piece of Telecom's Future.)
By taking advantage of containerization, operators would also be able to break applications down into "stateless capabilities," as described by Caroline Chappell, a principal analyst of NFV and the cloud with Heavy Reading , and then create lots of instances of each capability so that a failure in one part of the infrastructure would not affect the overall application.
"Many people in the virtualization space realize there are some real challenges with performance and scalability," said McRae during a presentation at the BBWF. "If you think about Twitter and Apple, they have gone down a path that is all about clusterization and that's a path I strongly believe NFV should take."
According to McRae, this approach should allow BT to avoid the service delays and outages arising from the time it would otherwise take to fire up virtual machines.
"A microkernel approach allows us to take one piece of the network down, change it and upload a new version of it in the same way that Twitter or Apple do administration of their sites," he said. "We think this is the future."
Containerization could hold further attractions for service providers by giving them an alternative to the use of hypervisors, which are deployed to monitor virtual machines.
"BT might be thinking of apps where containers are a must because the overhead to bring in hypervisors is eating the economy of the app unless you have direct container support," says Martin Backstrom, the head of Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC)'s datacom division, when asked to comment on BT's interest in containerization. "Containers today for a lot of IT apps are a must to stay competitive because you get so much more performance out of the hardware."
McRae says that Peter Willis, BT's chief researcher for data networks, has already submitted some standards on containerization to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) .
Willis has recently been creating some waves in the SDN and NFV areas, revealing at the SDN & Openflow Conference in Germany earlier this month that BT is considering proprietary alternatives to OpenStack -- an open-source technology that could underpin future NFV deployments -- for its rollout of virtual enterprise CPE functions. (See OpenStack Doubts Surface After BT Ultimatum and BT Threatens to Ditch OpenStack.)
A cloud-computing subsidiary of EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC) -- which computer hardware giant Dell Technologies (Nasdaq: DELL) is acquiring in a $67 billion deal -- VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW) currently stands out as the main provider of a proprietary virtualization technology. (See Dell-EMC-VMware Merger Could Push Comms to Kids' Table and Dell Buys EMC for $67B in Biggest Tech Deal Ever.)
Willis highlighted several areas where he feels OpenStack is falling short of operator requirements, including on security, scalability and backwards compatibility.
Containerization was not on his list, but it represents an additional complication for operators moving towards NFV implementations, according to Heavy Reading's Chappell.
While OpenStack is working on adding support for containerization, it could face challenges in this area from alternative open source approaches to cloud resource management, including Kubernetes, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)'s own data orchestration technology.
"OpenStack is running around trying to support Kubernetes and Kubernetes will use OpenStack as a way of creating virtual resources, but over time why would you want the overhead of two sets of orchestration?" says Chappell.
In the meantime, VMware is busy touting its containerization capabilities in the enterprise segment of the market.
In August, the company unveiled a new service called VMware vSphere Integrated Containers that will allow enterprise IT teams to support containerized applications based on a variety of platforms, including Kubernetes.
Asked by his BBWF audience how long it would take BT to realize its NFV ambitions, McRae said he wanted to make sure the technologies were viable before offering services to customers.
"We have virtualized about half a dozen solutions but I'm not deploying anything that doesn't work for customers," he said. "I think it will still take quite a long time because the IT systems that support these services are hugely immature."
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading