Vodafone's Heeran: Defining the Telco Cloud

Ray Le Maistre
CxO Spotlight
Ray Le Maistre, Editor-in-Chief

Virtualization is a term the telecom industry has wrestled with for the past six years, since network functions virtualization (NFV) became a "thing," but it's time to move on, look at the bigger cloud platform picture and change the way the industry talks about software-defined, automated networking.

That's the view of Fran Heeran, group head of Network Virtualisation, Cloud and Automation at Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD). He's leading an effort, along with executives from Orange and other operators, to define what a telco cloud should look like and how vendors can develop products that could be deployed into any operator's cloud infrastructure. More on that later.

Developing that definition involves communicating exactly what it is that operators want from their networks as well as their technology suppliers. Virtualization is no longer a useful term because, Heeran noted during a recent presentation at Huawei's Operations Transformation Forum event in Munich, "anyone can virtualize a legacy function, but it's no use unless it's cloud-native. So now we need to talk about cloudification, which includes useful virtualization. We need to change the vocabulary -- it's about cloud, not virtualization."

And that cloud needs to be made open, elastic and automated -- not an easy task, but one he's expecting to accomplish with the help of a number of initiatives and industry support, much of which hinges around open source networking project Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP) , part of the Linux Foundation's Networking Fund.

Vodafone's Heeran: It's all about cloud, not virtualization.
Vodafone's Heeran: It's all about cloud, not virtualization.

The new cloud journey
Heeran took over at the helm of Vodafone Group's telco cloud efforts from David Amzallag, who had launched and led the operator's Ocean initiative, about a year ago. Now, he says, the strategy has moved on.

Ocean was "a great initiative -- it raised awareness, but it was very focused on the network and focused on network transformation," notes Heeran in an extensive interview with Light Reading that also covered the operator's efforts to harmonize automated, cross-border VPN services. (See Vodafone & China Mobile Lead New Charge Towards Automated, Cross-Domain VPNs.)

"The new world we are looking at, the cloud environment, needs a broader scope. We are dealing with workloads, and in cloud there are fewer differences between network workloads and IT workloads than there were in the past. There is much that is now common," continues the Vodafone man.

"So now we use cloud as the term and we focus on our Network Cloud, into which Ocean has been subsumed, and our IT Cloud. And we also have to consider the public cloud -- the closer we are in an architectural sense to the public cloud, the easier that will make it for us."

But total network/IT convergence is a way off yet, he notes. "IT and network functions are coming together, becoming more common, at a technology level … [but] there's still some way to go in terms of operational unity."

Ah, the people/skills/culture problem that's causing so many operator headaches.

And that culture issue is part of the problem that Vodafone and other operators face when trying to get the whole industry moving in the same direction. The operator is already working with the open source community, particularly via ONAP, in an effort to bring unity to key areas of platform development (but, of course, not everyone has signed up the ONAP world view as yet).

"We joined ONAP because it was the one thing unifying efforts in the industry, so we looked at it from the view of what could be used, and what was useful for us." Now Vodafone's involvement in the initiative has developed significantly: Not only is it contributing code, but it's taking ONAP specifications to its supplier/partner community through its RFIs (requests for information). "We have started to define, in our RFIs, what we want the interfaces [used in their platforms] to look like. We have already communicated ONAP compliance to tech partners, whatever they are building. We want to see these interfaces in their products and we want them to let us know when those interfaces are in their product roadmaps."

Next page: A clear message for vendors

A clear message for vendors
For vendors, Heeran has some very clear messaging. "We are not going to get stuck building silos again. We need these open interfaces. This will help with cloud adoption and automation … this is all about maximizing the use of resources and ensuring multivendor orchestration."

So is the vendor community on board? These messages have been heard before and the tech suppliers all talk about their open platforms, yet… is there any pushback at all?

"There is no consistent level of embracing it … pushback is a bit strong. No one refutes the mission, but disaggregation is a bit challenging for some vendors. For the ones that don't have the full stack, this is music to their ears. For those with a full stack, it's a threat. But all the vendors know this is coming, and it's not just about forcing multivendor scenarios … it's about forcing openness across the design with no proprietary stitching. So a vendor could be providing a full stack but that stack needs to be disaggregated and have open APIs," notes Heeran.

"We need to set expectations and allow the suppliers to catch up. We need to create a reference for the industry … we're still waiting for properly cloud-aware functions but when they arrive, we will have the cloud in place," he adds.

And if the network operators can provide the vendors with the blueprint of their network and IT clouds, then those cloud-aware functions that will actually work on top of those networks might be delivered a bit quicker.

Describing the telco cloud
Heeran would like telco networks to steer developers in the same way as the web-scale giants have done: Developers are provided with detailed feature sets by the likes of Amazon and those developers follow those specifications to ensure their software works on the web-scale platform.

So the Vodafone man is on a mission to get the industry to agree to a common telco cloud blueprint that the vendors can follow and work to.

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"We need to specify what the resources of a telco cloud will be like, so that the developers can build applications for the whole industry. If we do that right, the apps will not need to [be aware] of what's running underneath. So we are working on resource definitions, and we've been talking with Orange (NYSE: FTE) and others, including the GSM Association (GSMA) , about a common definition of the telco cloud. This is a key hurdle to get over mentally. We need to get away from applications determining the platform and have the platform dictate how the applications should be designed," says Heeran.

That, then, would require an agreed and detailed blueprint for NFV infrastructure (NFVi). The phrase "herding cats" springs to mind.

"We need to define how developers design. Developers for the cloud have a clearly defined menu of what they need to follow. So we need to describe the telco cloud on which apps will work -- if we can't describe what a telco cloud looks like, then the developers have no chance."

The likes of Amazon Web Services Inc. have done this for the public cloud -- it would be a big step for the communications service provider community to come together and agree on something similar. But this is an industry built on standards, after all, so…

So when does Heeran hope this will all come together? When will Vodafone, and others, have a true telco cloud that can onboard VNFs/applications with ease?

That timeline seems uncertain. "That's hard to answer. We are underway with the transformation process. We started the core transformation years ago and are well underway. We have virtualized VoLTE in most of our operations … and have a virtual packet core ahead of 5G."

What comes next, it seems, will largely be driven through ONAP and other open source initiatives. Now all Heeran needs is the full support of the industry: Given that not everyone's on board for ONAP, with Telefónica in particular backing a different horse for automation and orchestration (Open Source MANO), that might be what some sports commentators refer to as "a big ask." (See ETSI's Open Source MANO Gets a Makeover.)

— Ray Le Maistre, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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