While the telcos have made a lot more noise about SDN and NFV, the cable industry is quietly making strides on virtualization as well, focusing mainly on incorporating open standards and developing virtualized customer premise equipment (CPE).
Like their telco counterparts, however, cable technologists face complications turning their SDN and NFV dreams into reality. That much became apparent during a panel discussion at Light Reading's Cable Next-Gen technologies & Strategies conference in Denver last week, as cable engineers delved into the challenges they face in implementing the two next-gen technologies in their existing networks. In a freewheeling session, the six experts examined such thorny issues as the transition from legacy hardware to software-driven networks, network orchestration and operations, cross-industry standards coordination, changing relationships with equipment vendors, and recruitment of staffers with the right skill sets. (See Cox's Athena to Virtualize Home Network.)
Nagesh Nandiraju, director of network architecture for Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), said virtualization of CPE in the home is one of the early targets for cable because of its many benefits. But it is also one of the major challenges for cable, he said, because of the scale required to cover millions of homes and devices. By abstracting functionality into the cloud, however, cable can deploy home-based gateway equipment that is programmable and flexible, eventually allowing service changes on-demand, as long as that home device packs a punch in terms of both compute and storage capability.
Scaling the entire NFV process will be an operational challenge, Nandiraju admitted. "Many things have to happen operationally," he said. But he noted, the task should be worth the effort because "there's a lot of value" in running equipment and services on "an elastic platform" in the cloud. Comcast can build on its experience in virtualizing its XI video gateways that leverage cloud-based user interfaces, DVRs and other video services. "Virtualization is not new to us," he said. "We've already virtualized many functions."
Besides scaling the equipment and functions virtualization process to millions of cable homes, the experts discussed such key SDN and NFV challenges as coordinating different network interfaces and forging common technical standards across the telecom and cable industries. They also drilled into critical network orchestration and operational issues, especially the difficulties of upgrading OSS and BSS systems for the two technologies.
"OSS and BSS are the big topics," said Don Clarke, principal architect for network technologies at CableLabs . "OSS has always been a big barrier."
Vikram Saksena, chief solutions architect in the CTO office at NetScout Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: NTCT), said his company has worked hard on accelerating the network orchestration process, which he noted used to be called provisioning. He cited NetScout's efforts with an unnamed large carrier in Texas, thought to be AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), on a new network-on-demand service that the carrier is trying out.
"It's a pretty complex problem," said Saksena, who spoke in an earlier keynote address about the crucial role of customer service assurance in virtualized networks. "It used to take weeks. Now we can do network-on-demand in a matter of minutes." (See NetScout: Service Assurance Still a Must for Virtual Realm.)
The cable industry is very engaged in the many open source projects that are addressing orchestration and some of the other challenges, Clarke said, and CableLabs is helping coordinate that work. In general, cable is a strong supporter of open networking and APIs, he added.
But cable technologists are not just worried about the purely technical challenges of SDN and NFV. They also fret about finding employees with the right skill sets as the greatest challenge for cable operators to overcome. "The challenge is just as much about standards and skills as about technology," Clarke said.
Other panelists agreed that attracting and recruiting staffers with the proper abilities and experience is a major issue for cable to address. Calling it "a key takeaway," David Leitzel, consulting engineer for Palo Alto Networks Inc. , said that "finding talent that understands dev/ops" should be a high priority for operators. Jim Hudmon, MSO CTO for Mavenir Systems Inc. , chimed in there as well, describing "the resource pool" as "one of the key challenges in the dev/ops area."
In particular, panelists expressed concern about finding the right staffers needed to carry out the tricky technical work of integrating SDN and NFV elements into cable HFC networks. "Who's going to integrate all those piece parts?" Clarke asked rhetorically. "How are we going to integrate those things together?"
Despite such daunting challenges, panelists urged cable operators not to wait until everything was resolved. They said it was critical for operators to plunge into SDN and NFV now and learn from their mistakes. Otherwise, they warned, cable providers risked falling behind their telco rivals.
"It's important to get started," Clarke said. "You can't wait. You've got to start where it makes sense and get this inculcated into your culture."
CableLabs is actively involved in working through those challenges, and supporting specific cable operators in their early deployments, he noted, such as Cox with its Athena proof of concept involving virtual CPE. (See Cox's Athena to Virtualize Home Network.)
— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading