In complex projects, such as a home extension, it makes sense to have a prime contractor that ensures the brickwork, plumbing, electrics and decorating are all coordinated. In IT circles the process of bringing together component sub-systems into one "uber" system is referred to as systems integration (SI). The lead systems integrator is the project manager or "one throat to choke."
By all accounts, NFV is even more complicated than a home extension and many telcos have opted for a lead systems integrator, not least so they have someone to blame if everything goes wrong. For example, in 2015, when Telefónica became frustrated with the vendor community's inability to provide open, multivendor propositions they brought in a lead SI to knit all the pieces together. Unfortunately that deal didn't seem to work out; it seems that choosing an SI can be as complicated as choosing all the component parts of NFV.
So, what are the key criteria to look for from an NFV SI? Clearly a knowledge of service provider IT (OSS), and enterprise IT (virtualization) are important. So too is a deep understanding of networking. In a hybrid, physical/virtual deployment (i.e. the real world) knowledge of legacy systems may be critical to NFV's success. The SI also needs to enable an open, multivendor environment that allows the CSP to swap out parts of the orchestration, VNF and infrastructure layers, avoiding vendor lock-in. If the SI is also a vendor of orchestrators, VNFs and/or infrastructure this clearly introduces a conflict of interest that must be managed.
The trouble with pure systems integrators is that while they may be very experienced in CRM implementations and business process re-engineering, they are perhaps not as steeped in networking know-how as the telco equipment providers. Once NFV is mature then pure SI firms will probably cope fine, but in the early days the trade-off between independence and network smarts may favor the communication infrastructure vendors. PowerPoint doesn't push packets.
In a survey conducted by TBR more than 50 managers and executives across the top 20 Tier 1 operators were asked to rank the importance of the services provided by their NFV vendors. Integration came top of the list, closely followed by deployment. Consulting was deemed to be of lesser importance. Surprisingly, technical support and managed services came bottom of the list. Perhaps it is the immaturity of NFV and its heavy reliance on software that make systems integration the top priority.
The TBR report quotes a Tier 1 operations director saying, "The values that we look for while acquiring such [integration] services would be that they consolidate our network systems and enhance their efficiency, transform the network seamlessly without disrupting current services, and organize the network functions in a way that would ease the introduction of new services."
Achieving such lofty objectives while minimizing the impact on the existing business is non-trivial. Like in the home extension analogy, complexity argues for a single lead integrator. The lead integrator develops a road map that meets the operator's goals and makes sure subcontractors meet the necessary requirements on time. The subcontractors may perform systems integration around their specific part of the solution (e.g. orchestrator, VNF or NFVi layer), but the prime SI is responsible for integrating the whole.
This blog is sponsored by Huawei.
— James Crawshaw, Senior Analyst, OSS/BSS Transformation, Heavy Reading