The Edge

Telefónica's OnLife Is Growing Long in the Tooth

AMSTERDAM -- Broadband World Forum 2019 -- Alfonso Carrillo manages to sound gleeful when talking about his disruptive behavior. "We are breaking the ecosystem and that causes some dismay for legacy manufacturers, but I am retiring pretty soon," the Telefónica executive chuckled.

It is no wonder if some vendors are upset with him. The chief architect of the Spanish operator's ambitious OnLife project, Carrillo has been at the forefront of efforts to redesign Telefónica's central offices, turning them into mini data centers through a potent mixture of white box hardware and open source code. For some of the vendors that have made money by flogging expensive boxes and proprietary tools, OnLife could seem more like NoLife.

Yet that description also hints at a more uncomfortable truth for Telefónica: It is now about three years since it began thinking seriously about central office transformation. In digital terms, OnLife is getting old, and the Spanish operator still has little to show for it. Just 15 residential customers and two enterprises are now using services provided at the "edge" of the network on new-look gear.

The project is entering an important phase. The central office pods, as Carillo describes them, are being assembled in Valencia, rolled into the relevant locations and hooked up to power and fiber-optic systems. If all goes well, a far more ambitious rollout could be on the horizon: Carrillo cites a figure of 1,000 central offices in a presentation at today's Broadband World Forum in Amsterdam.

Telefónica must still figure out where and in what circumstances they make sense. It has already had to rewrite some of its initial plans. Carrillo had originally expected computing power needs to be "homogeneous" across the network footprint in terms of the requirements for GPUs (graphical processing units) and similar components. He turned out to be wrong. "Each neighborhood is different, and so computing capacity varies to serve the needs of each neighborhood," he says. "What we have now done is to start testing with real customers."

Thanks to the tests and trials still underway, the operator has been able to identify a handful of services (or use cases) that its rearchitected data centers could support. The first is a content delivery network (CDN) hosting Telefónica's own TV broadcasting system. By reducing the traffic load on parts of the network, that CDN could lead to huge cost savings in Spain, says Carrillo. Indeed, the traffic savings at a Spanish central office would pay for the deployment of the entire pod, he reckons. Telefónica is now crunching the numbers to see how much it could save from the deployment of CDNs in Brazil, where it currently rents some of its equipment from other companies.

Another use case entails edge facilities for data storage, back-up and disaster recovery. That could hold appeal for smaller companies worried about the escalating costs of storing data either in the cloud or at their own premises. "As you store more data then Amazon becomes more expensive," says Carrillo. "And customers don't have the capabilities to have battery back-up and air conditioning and so they asked us what we could do." What Telefónica did was to move storage appliances to the central office, keeping data off the public Internet and away from a customer's own facilities.

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The sexiest use case, though, turned out to be remote live video production. For TV broadcasters, setting up equipment every time there is a major event can be a headache. Telefónica's medicine is to shift production software into its central offices. The pod would then handle the imaging and other broadcast activities normally done inside a truck. "This is quite revolutionary because it will allow small broadcasters to be able to deploy into the edge using open source and TV software," says Carrillo. "They can do minor events they cannot cover today."

Not everything trialed has been such a roaring success. In Malaga, tests with police authorities of edge-based facial recognition technology appear at a less advanced stage -- to the possible relief of Spanish miscreants and privacy activists. Nor is the technology ready to support 360-degree virtual-reality services, says Carillo. "The goggles are too heavy, and people get dizzy."

Going from 15 residential and two enterprise users to something meaningful will obviously require a big leap, and it remains unclear when Telefónica might have something it can show off across a large chunk of the production network. But if the CDN system alone covers the upfront pod costs, there must be cause for optimism. And the edge cloud pods have clearly put a spring in Carillo's step. "We are transforming the network and expanding the cloud to neighborhoods," he says. "We are becoming programmers of software rather than users or buyers of network hardware."

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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