At Tuesday night's MEF Excellence Awards at MEF16 in Baltimore (yes, I know most of you were distracted by other events taking place on Election Night), one of the dinner sponsors suggested a drinking game: Every time the words "end-to-end" or "orchestration" were mentioned, the gala dinner participants should down a glass of wine.
Indeed, "end-to-end", "orchestration" and other words like "automation" and "assurance" dominated this year's MEF16 conference, attended by over 1,000 professionals, almost half of which were service providers and primarily focused on the MEF's vision of the Third Network.
As Nan Chen, the organization's president, said in his opening keynote: "The digital economy requires Third Network services." Or, as Comcast's Chad Haggerty put it, in today's on-demand era, "We need to think differently about connectivity services and embrace software to gain speed, agility and reliability."
But what is the "Third Network"? According to an MEF white paper announced at the conference, the Third Network is an industry vision for the evolution and transformation of network connectivity services and the networks used to deliver them. In this vision, the Third Network combines the on-demand agility and ubiquity of the Internet with the performance and security assurances of today's business-grade networks such as Carrier Ethernet 2.0 and MPLS, and will enable services between physical and virtual networks.
Orchestrating this are the lifecycle service orchestration (LSO) systems, which will be used for service ordering, fulfillment, performance, usage, analytics and security, both within an operator domain and across multi-operator networks. LSO, said Chen, is vital if the industry "is to deliver on the promise of NFV and SDN." Pascal Menezes, MEF co-founder and now its CTO described LSO as "the engine that glues and automates interconnectivity to the network," enabling the Third Network to be agile, assured and orchestrated.
There are many benefits of software-based orchestration. Verizon Wireless' Sankaran "Ram" Ramanathan listed a number of them, including rapid service creation and analytics-driven service delivery; service assurance in the form of auto recovery from failures and self-healing capabilities and analytics-based predictive and reactive operations; service scaling through elastic capacity and automated scaling, as well as dynamic resource allocation based on demand and availability; and improved network management with a centralized operations model moving away from function-based operations and process automation.
But at the same time, Ralph Santitoro, head of SDN/NFV Solutions Practice, Fujitsu Network Communications, cautioned against being enamored solely by software. He said, "Remember, technology is a means to getting to a business objective," and the business need, not the technology function must come first for operators.
Haggerty, Comcast's senior director of OSS Systems, acknowledged that the move to an on-demand experience with user-directed control over service capabilities and cloud connectivity reflected a major dynamic change in the industry. "We've gone from a hardware-focused, set-top-box environment to being able to watch anything, anywhere in the space of five years," he said.
This has resulted in service lifecycle management going well beyond the network and extending to an ecosystem that needs to centered on the digital customer and their expectations of on-demand services, more flexibility and the ability to change bandwidth whenever they want. In other words, "the digitally empowered customer is becoming more involved in our business processes".
This isn't without its challenges. As Amdocs' Mark Gibson, director of product management, told a panel, "One of the major issues we see at service providers is that the move to hybrid services is leading to operational disruption. If you allow people to tailor their service, you've made operationalizing it harder and made the job of managing it more difficult."
Which is where the MEF, and its history as a standards body comes into play. As AT&T's Josh Goodell, vice president of Network on Demand, insisted: "We need to drive industry standardization across key areas, such as VNF onboarding, open universal CPE and SDN federation," a view that chimes with MEF President Chen's view of a standards-based approach for the Third Network.
In Chen's eyes, if service providers want to expand their service reach beyond their own networks and deliver dynamic capabilities, they need a standards-based approach that facilitates seamless interoperability with other providers and enables end-to-end service automation with open APIs.
— Jeff Barak, Corporate Editor, Amdocs