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Clouding Up the NFV Transition

Virtualization without the cloud lacks value, but getting to the cloud could mean painful delays for NFV

July 29, 2013

3 Min Read
Clouding Up the NFV Transition

A growing chorus of voices is warning that the virtualization of network functions won't accomplish the savings service providers are looking for unless the move to virtualization is coupled with the much tougher job of moving those functions into the cloud.

With that acknowledgement, however, comes the realization that true Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) will take significant work and may not have a real impact for two years or more.

The necessity of "cloudifying" the network -- and yes, that's the term being bandied about -- is certainly the premise of the recently formed CloudNFV group, but it's also a message resonating with the likes of Heavy Reading Senior Analyst Caroline Chappell as well as the TM Forum. (See New Group Ties NFV to the Cloud).

"Fundamentally, just to virtualize something, to put it on the hyperviser, on COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] hardware, doesn't change it all that much," Chappell says. By contrast, putting something in the cloud enables network operators to have "very dynamic resource pools, things that can contract and expand," as well as the ability to move things around very rapidly to meet changing needs or demands.

Virtualizing something without putting it into a cloud ecosystem just carves up the physical architecture into virtual machines, without the flexibility and elasticity of the cloud, notes Chappell.

So the TM Forum is focusing its efforts on what it will take to manage services in a virtualized world and is viewing the cloud as essential to that process, even though it's far from clear exactly how it all comes together, says Chief Strategy Officer Nik Willetts. The forum will be putting out a position paper this fall, in advance of its North American conference in San Jose Oct. 28-30, that looks in greater depth at its vision for the future.

"We are looking at what the ultimate operator end-to-end management platform will look like," says Willetts. "It is certainly going to be in the cloud, but whether it is a private cloud or public, and whether it is country-specific or whether there is one for large operators that fits across a large number of countries, there are all sorts of ways of how you go. We need to develop that vision and then work backwards in terms of how you get there, because it's not going to happen overnight."

In fact, Willetts says, the service provider CTOs and CIOs with whom he's talking are looking at a two-year process, even as everyone admits market pressures exist to move faster on anything that will get services to market more quickly.

The TM Forum is working with the CloudNFV group as well as the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) NFV group on deciding network management requirements, Willetts says. The forum's intent is to take a practical approach to the process, as it has with its past 'Catalyst' projects. (See Carriers Peer Into Virtual World.)

CloudNFV is also trying to approach the issues practically, says Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp and a driving force behind that effort, which is promising to yield its first fruit this fall in a demonstration of virtualized IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) elements.

But Nolle, Chappell and Willetts all agree that this "cloudification" process will create new management headaches, especially since pulling together resources in dynamic fashion from their various virtualized locations will make the end-to-end assurance of a network service much more difficult.

The process itself is likely to spark a clash between the IT-oriented factions within a telecom operator that are accustomed to virtualization and dynamic reconfiguration, and the network-oriented factions that prefer the greater certainty and reliability of tried and true process.

So what can be done to overcome the looming NFV management challenge? That'll be the focus of my next NFV article.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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