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NFV Strategies

NFV Drives Shift to Open Platforms

Network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN) platforms are a key focus for telecom and network equipment suppliers, covered in a recent survey that also shows a significant shift toward open platforms and open software architectures. Many existing networking systems are built on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) platforms, including rackmount servers, blade servers, ATCA, appliance platforms and micro servers. The survey shows the majority of companies are likely to use Open Compute platforms for future systems. Approximately one fifth of companies are already using white box switches, and that number is expected to grow to more than half within one to two years.

This is one of the many key findings in the latest Heavy Reading report, COTS, ATCA & White Box User Survey: 2016 Market Outlook based on an exclusive worldwide survey that drew responses from 75 professionals that represent 50 different telecom and networking equipment suppliers. The report charts the use of COTS hardware, NEBS/ETSI compatible platforms and white box switches. It includes information on the use of different COTS platforms and which new platform architectures are expected to be used for future systems. Respondents were asked which system integrators they used and how they rate each system integrator on the overall quality of their solutions. The report also includes information on the use of different ATCA platforms, ATCA enhancements and extensions, add-in cards and embedded software.

Over the last 15 years, the telecom industry has been steadily shifting from closed solutions toward open solutions. In 2000, most telecom systems were developed in-house by telecom equipment manufacturers using proprietary silicon, hardware, middleware and applications software. Since then, each of these components has progressively shifted from an in-house solution to an ecosystem sourced solution. COTS platforms have been a key part of this paradigm shift, and most companies now use some or all COTS platforms.

The first generation of COTS platforms were agreed on through industry organizations, such as PICMG or based on standard PC hardware. The PICMG ATCA platform has been widely used for telecom systems, but it has not achieved the market domination originally expected due to its complexity, ecosystem challenges and reluctance by equipment vendors to open platforms to third-party solutions. ATCA has been continuously improved with many enhancements, including higher speed switching and greater power per slot. Blade servers and rackmount servers have also been widely used where the flexibility of ATCA is not required. Service providers have been able to deliver carrier grade availability by using NEBS and ETSI compatible platforms.

The latest generation of COTS platforms have been developed to support NFV and SDN. There are three key developments with quite different roots. The Open Compute Project foundation is an industry group that is developing open and scalable solutions for server, storage and data center hardware. The key Open Compute development is the Open Rack standard that defines an open rack that supports multiple IT equipment configurations. The majority of companies covered in the survey are expected to use Open Compute solutions for future systems. Intel Rack Scale defines a modular approach to platform development and is being used by several leading vendors. ATCA 3 R4.0 is a development of ATCA that is being specified to support telecom cloud and data center applications and will also be used by some equipment providers.

System integrators have been particularly important in the deployment of systems based on COTS platforms. Leading system integrators include Advantech, Dell, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, IBM, Kontron, Oracle, Radisys and Supermicro. System integrators will build and test systems for specific applications using hardware platforms, add-in cards and software from multiple sources. The shift toward open solutions increases the number of options available and is likely to increase the value of system integration.

Open specifications are being agreed for every part of the telecom system: COTS platforms, virtualization, middleware, operating systems and network functions. The first generation of COTS platforms were sold as proprietary solutions even though the underlying hardware and middleware were based on industry specifications. The lessons learned from this first generation are now being applied to the next generation of COTS platforms that will be sold as part of an open ecosystem and will enable service providers to deploy virtualized network solutions that support the performance and carrier grade availability expected from telecom systems.

— Simon Stanley, Analyst at Large, Heavy Reading

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