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Orange, Vodafone to Unveil Common Approach to NFVi

James Crawshaw

Orange and Vodafone are finalizing plans to agree a common approach to NFV infrastructure (NFVi) that will address the difficulty of virtual network function (VNF) testing across the myriad NFVi environments that exist today.

The initiative was first referenced late last year in a presentation by Emmanuel Lugagne Delpon, senior VP of Orange Lab Networks. The topic is being discussed among CTO-office executives at the MWC19 event in Barcelona and I understand the GSM Association (GSMA), which runs Mobile World Congress, will make an announcement related to the NFVi initiative imminently.

As part of their NFV implementations, operators such as Orange and Vodafone have been designing platforms that enable them to deploy VNFs. This involves different hardware resources (compute storage, networking) and a virtualization layer (a hypervisor such as KVM). In the case of Orange and Vodafone, the NFVi scope also includes a Virtual Infrastructure Manager based on OpenStack, although in the much-referenced ETSI architecture the VIM is considered part of NFV-MANO, separate from the NFVi.

The problem faced by Orange, Vodafone and others is that they have all pursued slightly different NFVi implementations: Even within Orange, different operating units are running different variants of NFVi. This makes life difficult for VNF vendors, as they need to test their software against each carrier's unique NFVi. If it proves incompatible, modifications could be needed just to serve the needs of one particular operator. This all leads to long VNF development and test cycles, which is holding back the agility that NFV was meant to bring. According to Markus Wuepping, head of Cloud Center of Excellence at Vodafone Group, "There is a big risk of having a different NFVi configuration for every VNF deployment. You'd end up with a multi-silo deployment in our networks, which defeats the purpose of moving to cloud and leveraging the same shared infrastructure for multiple VNFs," adds Wuepping.

"The current state of NFVi in the telecom industry is too fragmented," notes Philippe Lucas, SVP of Strategy, Architecture & Standardization at Orange. As such, Vodafone and Orange are working together alongside other operators to limit the number of NFVi configurations to make VNF testing simpler. According to Wuepping, "Since the work has started, there has been wide acknowledgement from operators for the need and benefits of this approach -- more operators are joining and becoming more active on this."

Lucas notes that as well as other operators, they have also been working with some large Internet players on the initiative. "They all agree that reducing the number of configurations is a good idea," Lucas adds.

Although the Linux Foundation's Open Platform for NFV (OPNFV) has a mission to create "a reference NFV platform to accelerate the transformation of enterprise and service provider networks," it has around 60 different NFVi configurations, according to Lucas. This diversity likely reflects the interests of multiple vendors looking to ensure their hardware and software components are part of the verification and compliance test ecosystem. However, it is very time consuming and costly for VNF vendors to test against each variant.

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So, what will this NFVi implementation blueprint look like? Well, it won't be a list of specific devices and software. Instead it will outline in fairly abstract terms three different NFVi configurations for three distinct families of VNFs: network-intensive applications; compute-intensive applications; and nominal cases (i.e. everything else including general IT workloads).

According to Rabi Abdel, network virtualization and SDN/NFV lead architect at Vodafone Group, "Network intensive applications generally require high throughput and low latency so the NFVi will need to support various acceleration technologies, like Smart NICs and DPDK [Data Plane Development Kit], that VNFs can access in a standard way. For compute-intensive applications, the infrastructure will include support for FPGAs and GPUs and again, we need to make these capabilities available to the VNFs in a standard way."

Lucas is keen to stress they are not trying to create an industry standard for NFVi but rather want to align operators. He notes, "With 5G we need a common way to deploy virtualized architecture and we need to start today with a more coherent and less fragmented approach."

Not everyone in the industry will be that excited about the initiative. Operators that are already quite advanced in their NFV deployments will have already settled on their own NFVi configurations and will not be keen to change. However, for those operators that have barely begun their NFV journey, it makes sense to follow a common approach.

For Vodafone, one motivation is to manage deployment scale and reduce the complexity of NFVi and VNF deployment in its network, noted Wuepping.

Lucas notes that the elements that comprise NFVi will evolve over time in line with the dynamic nature of the IT industry. "We need to learn from the Internet players," notes Lucas. "NFVi will become more cloud-based, incorporating Kubernetes, for example."

Is the GSMA the right body to broker agreement around a common approach for NFVi? Vincent Danno, a director within Orange's Strategy, Architecture and Standardization unit, notes: "The GSMA is a good place to discuss with other service providers that share the same constraints as us, but ultimately the topic of reference NFVi implementations will need to operate within OPNFV or another Linux Foundation Networking project."

Vodafone's Abdel, who is also the vice chair of the Linux Foundation Networking (LFN)'s Compliance & Verification Committee, notes: "We see that the potential of this initiative as huge because now you could see OPNFV, for example, making a reference implementation of the defined NFVi profiles and use those profiles to certify NFVi solutions coming from vendors."

Danno, though, doesn't see NFVi reference implementations as a good fit for ETSI NFV Industry Specification Group, noting that the ISG has "provided a very good target architecture but the open source community is where the industry will agree on how this architecture is actually implemented."

— James Crawshaw, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

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3/7/2019 | 3:58:19 AM
Important carrier-driven initiative to streamline NFVI efforts
An important carrier-driven initiative to streamline NFVI efforts!

Currently, too many NFVI alternatives make transition to NFVI complex and expensive for both vendors and operators. Consolidation into a single simplified approach will help drive assimilation. Moreover, as mentioned, programmable HW acceleration, such as with FPGA SmartNICs needs to be part of this new infrastructure to economically meet customer expectations for deterministic carrier grade performance. 
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