SDN and NFV are going to be adopted by network operators -- that now seems like a given, though there are still many questions yet to be answered. (See Analysts Warn of Major NFV Gaps and OSS Is Key to SDN, NFV Strategies.)
Among those questions are: How, why, and when can NFV become part of a production network environment? That's because operators are keen to introduce virtualized functions into their networks to gain the flexibility, speed and even reduced costs that such a move promises, but introducing virtual functions into a legacy network environment appears fraught with potential pitfalls and operational nightmares.
For operators still pondering how to benefit from NFV, British mobile operator EE may have the answer (or at least an option). And from what Light Reading understands, it may not be alone in developing what we are going to call the Phantom Network.
The man with the message is Phil Bridge, senior network architect at EE, who shared his views during a presentation at the recent SDN & OpenFlow World Congress. He needs no convincing that SDN and NFV are absolutely vital to the future of any telco: Without them, he believes, communications networks will not be able to handle the volumes and volatility of the traffic running across them.
"Mobile devices are aggressive and unpredictable. Add to that the complexity of current networks, and you have a toxic mix… Networks are getting messy," he notes, citing the example of the mobile packet core, which is increasingly having to manage traffic coming from multiple different access networks -- macro cellular, small cells, WiFi. "We need things like SDN and NFV to overcome that. It's a feasibility thing. We are starting to think about how to build our network for 5G, a network that can handle all of that mess."
In Bridge's view, NFV is "the evolution of the network elements," while SDN, which will follow NFV in the next-gen network deployment cycle, "is the evolution of the network itself."
And SDN can really help in the operator's backhaul network, which is a "major operational challenge," because EE is introducing changes to "hundreds of circuits each month, and that's a nightmare. SDN can help with that," as well as enabling EE to offer a network-as-a-service offering to MVNOs.
But how can operators gain from SDN and NFV right now, while they are still working out the operational and deployment challenges? Bridge believes current networks can handle their traffic loads for a while yet, but as the IoT becomes a reality, "the current networks won't be able to cope."
So Bridge, who will share his views on how to build and run future networks at the upcoming OSS in the Era of SDN & NFV: Evolution vs Revolution one-day conference in London (November 5), believes EE can benefit right now, and "sidestep all the issues surrounding open source, standards and orchestration" by building a separate, adjunct virtualized network that represents the capabilities of the operator's existing physical network.
How does this help? Bridge says such a virtual network would enable EE to emulate the existing production network in a virtual environment, allowing EE to "perform a lot of functional testing and sanity testing" of new capabilities and the impact on networks of a change or addition. "There are huge business benefits," reckons Bridge, who says it takes a year to undertake the full test cycle of a new network element. "That's something we could do in months or even weeks using NFV. We can use NFV as a change accelerator for the legacy network. We can do this in 2015," he notes, adding that while this process cannot replicate every test scenario, it can take care of a large slice of the verification work.
Not only that, though: By using NFV in this way it would enable EE to figure out how virtualized functions actually work and perform, and in time enable EE to introduce "NFV islands into our existing network."
The idea is intriguing, and it seems EE is not alone. According to industry chat, a major European operator is set to announce a similar Phantom Network strategy before the end of the year.
In the NFV and SDN world, 2015 could be the Year of the Phantom Network.
— Ray Le Maistre, , Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading