FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- CCA Annual Convention -- The move to virtualization is being led by large Tier 1 operators like AT&T, Telstra, NTT DoCoMo and SK Telecom, but the benefits and drivers are the same for Tier 2 and 3 operators, regardless of their size and location.
That was the message executives from Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. , Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) and Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq: ORCL) on a panel here Thursday. The vendors are, of course, supplying their operator customers with New IP technologies such as SDN and NFV, so their advice was not altogether altruistic, but they did have some practical suggestions on how and where to get started, as well as why it matters. (See The Business Case Challenge for NFV.)
"The combination of NFV and SDN can fundamentally transform the network," Glenn Laxdal, Ericsson's CTO and head of strategy, said on the panel. "The message to small carriers is you may have not gone too far down this path yet, but it's a path we'll all go down." (See Ericsson CTO: Carriers Moving Too Slowly on Virtualization .)
While NFV is a transformative technology in its ability to scale network functions to elastic levels while also scaling down the cost curve, the panelists agreed that it doesn't make sense to virtualize all network functions. Here's what functions the panelists thought should and should not be virtualized (though the former list is understandably much longer):
- Evolved packet core -- Laxdal said the packet core is a good place to start as a virtual router can serve the ever increasing amount of machine-to-machine (M2M) connections on the network.
- Ethernet services on demand
- VPN on demand
- Network address translators (NATs)
- Route reflectors
- Virtual IMS core -- For a smaller operator, Laxdal suggested this can be a more affordable way to launch voice-over-LTE to a much smaller footprint of subscribers.
- Session border controller (SBC) -- This is only for the elements that are not transcoded. Steve Northridge, senior director of product management at Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq: ORCL), said that might change in five years, but until then, there needs to be separate functions for the blocking-and-tackling aspects of the SBC, like signaling and firewall punching. But elements like transcoding are better off -- and cheaper -- in dedicated equipment.
- Core routers
- Data plane -- James Tindall, VP of IP and Optical, Americas region at Alcatel-Lucent, said wherever there is a heavy data plane component, virtualization is not the optimal answer.
Knowing what functions are ripe for virtualization is a good starting point, but the panelists also agreed that the process needs to begin with education. Laxdal suggested studying what the wireline operators are doing first, then looking at wireless operators. And Miguel Dajer, VP of wireless access lab at Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. , said the best way to learn is to "get your hands dirty" with a proof concept to learn from. (See AT&T Virtualizes Multi-Layer Security,
"At the end of the day, it's about understanding your business, customers, targets and services you want to deploy," Dajer said. "Then look around to see if you can partner with others to host capabilities and pool resources to reap the benefits of this type of technology." (See Good News for NFV Interoperability.)
One of the important findings from this process will also be how to troubleshoot, which Tindall admits keeps him up at night. "You have to understand where you go in virtual environment to figure out what's wrong," he advised. (See Getting to NFV Everywhere.)
Even after they laid out a number of different functions to virtualize and made a case for why, the panelists still fielded a question from one of the audience's small carriers, essentially asking, if it ain't broken, why fix it (and invest in it)?
The panelists reminded him not every function needs to be virtualized immediately, and that a hybrid approach can work well in which they add virtual capabilities as they go. But the end benefit of personalized services, lower costs and a more flexible, agile network is worth it, they said. (See Telefónica: In Search of Virtual Simplicity.)
Or, put another way, as Northridge did, it lets you "treat your services like cattle instead of pets; if something isn't working, kill it and move on."
Laxdal then added, perhaps more eloquently, "Don't ignore the trend because you're good today on the infrastructure you have in place. The ecosystem is moving in the direction of NFV and SDN. It's an undeniable trend that will drive more change and disruption in the network over the next five years than we've seen in the last 20 years."
— Sarah Thomas, , Editorial Operations Director, Light Reading