Telecom Industry Takes Big Steps Toward Virtualization of Networks

Prodip Sen, director, network architecture, Verizon, & chairman, ETSI NFV ISG

Prodip Sen, director, network architecture, Verizon, & chairman, ETSI NFV ISG

By Fred Dawson

October 15, 2013 – The idea of virtualizing network functions to expedite delivery of next-generation services has gained new momentum with issuance of a new set of standards by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute and new initiatives on the part of service providers and vendors.

In essence, Network Functions Virtualization (NFV), as it’s called, is the extension of the cloud and Software-Defined Networking (SDN) concepts to telecommunications networks. Over the past year as interest in SDN took hold in telecom circles, it became evident that formalization of SDN concepts specific to telecom requirements would be necessary, which prompted formation of NFV groups along with the launch of multiple vendor initiatives and the standards development effort under the auspices of ETSI’s Industry Specifications Group for NFV (NFV ISG).

Like SDN, which takes a generic datacenter perspective on how service requirements dictate the application of network facilities, NFV aims to centralize network intelligence and state control while abstracting the underlying infrastructure for use in all service applications. NFV consolidates traditional network equipment types via standard IT virtualization technology onto commodity off-the-shelf (COTS) servers while ensuring that the virtualization process comports with industry standards.

The migration of network control from individual network devices to generic computing devices allows development of software that can treat the network as a logical entity for delivering whatever services and applications are desired. Applications can be dynamically built and torn down with minimum intervention at the facilities level, lowering costs and accelerating response to market needs.

ETSI’s NFV ISG was initiated less than a year ago by the world’s leading network operators and a broad representation of equipment and IT vendors. As noted by Verizon director of network architecture Prodip Sen, who chairs the ETSI group, the fact that the just-issued first set of specifications was completed within ten months of project initiation underscores how vital virtualization has become to telecommunications providers.

“We have been especially concerned not to impede progress with a protracted standardization effort in NFV ISG,” Sen says. “As a result, these initial specifications have been developed in record time – under ten months of intensive work. This is a major achievement for the industry.”

And one fraught with risk for a vendor community that has thrived on proprietary innovation of dedicated hardware components. Innovation won’t go away by any means, but the days of duking it out over who has the best widget may be coming to an end. Nonetheless, the effort has wholehearted support from major telecom suppliers like Ericsson, Cisco System, Nokia Solutions and Networks and Alcatel-Lucent, which are well down the road with virtualization initiatives of their own.

One that’s unusual in its scope with respect to the vendor community at large is the Alcatel-Lucent CloudBand Ecosystem Program, which provides multi-vendor product and services support for carrier applications so that developers and vendors can scale and interact within a simulated cloud environment in advance of commercial launches. The company just announced that, following a limited rollout with a small group of vendors, it has opened up its CloudBand EcoSystem Program to a wider circle of businesses, with 15 companies signed up, including Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica, Citrix, Intel, Vyatta, Radware, Red Hat, HP, Nuage Networks, Gigaspaces, StackIQ, Inktank and Nominum.

Everyone  participating in the program uses the CloudBand solution as the underlying virtualization framework that ties everything together. As reported in March 2012, the role of the CloudBand solution is to enable service providers to build a carrier-grade cloud infrastructure that can orchestrate, automate and optimize services between the communications network, the data center, internal platforms and other cloud environments. Utilizing algorithms developed by Bell Labs, CloudBand orchestrates the network, computing and data storage elements distributed throughout the network to create a unified and flexible service delivery and computing platform.

“As an industry we need to accelerate the journey towards NFV,” says Axel Clauberg, vice president for IP and fixed access architecture within the group CTO team at Deutsche Telekom.  “There are two main parts in making this happen that need to work well with each other through experimentation and iterations: one, wide array of best-of-breed ‘virtual network functions’ that currently run on purpose-built hardware, and, two, an NFV cloud platform that’s optimized to run these functions at scale.”

This, he adds, is what Alcatel-Lucent is dong. Using the CloudBand Innovation Center in Napirville, Ill. to onboard virtualized applications, the ecosystem program provides “a workspace where companies can access CloudBand and collaborate and learn from each other,” says Roy Amir, vice president of strategy and ecosystem for CloudBand.. “This will help service providers adopt a completely new NFV operational model using services and solutions that have been developed with them and their customers’ needs in mind.”

Such collaborative capabilities are a distinguishing and imperative component of the NFV model, notes Diego Lopez, head of technology exploration at Telefonica. “Realizing the NFV promise is not a task for a single vendor,” Lopez says. “It is not only that NFV addresses so many domains that no vendor can realistically aim to deliver in all of them, but the fact that the NFV promise itself involves an open innovation ecosystem, implying true industry and market collaboration.”

Industry research makes clear NFV is widely viewed as more than just another speculative tech initiative. For example, in a recent multiple choice poll of readers, Light Reading reports 53 of the 338 respondents checked off on the description of NFV as a “game changer” that will have a “massive impact on costs and efficiencies.” But the poll revealed skepticism as well with 28 percent saying NFV, while a great concept, would be too hard to deploy and 14 percent saying it was all hype with no hope of getting out of test labs. (The other five percent had no idea what NFV is.)

Indeed, the transition from dedicated hardware to virtualization of the network poses the same types of challenges, though perhaps greater, that have confronted efforts to implement converged back-office systems. It’s great to have a carrier-optimized cloud platform like CloudBand to bring together disparate virtualized vendor solutions, but figuring out how to cost effectively replace or cap legacy components while introducing the all-new approach is daunting, to say the least.

One industry effort aimed at developing a practical roadmap for the transition to NFV within the specification framework established under ETSI is CloudNFV, a consortium of six firms contributing their technologies to create an open platform that can be used to test the integration of cloud computing, SDN, NFV and the management protocols established through the Telemanagement Forum. As described on the group’s website, the CloudNFV architecture is based on management and orchestration applications built around an agile data/process model called Active Virtualization, which provides for order/contract and policy storage (“Active Contract”) and resource state information (“Active Resource”).

In a recent blog, Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp. and the spearhead behind CloudNFV, says the group’s architecture is designed to address three primary principles:

1} “You can’t let virtual functions poll real resources for management information…Otherwise the growth in virtual functions creates an exploding load on devices and the network just to exchange control telemetry;”

2) While “you want to be able to support legacy management practices in an evolution to virtual functions, SDN and the cloud, you don’t want to constrain modern virtual-cloud environments by tying them to device-oriented management systems.”

3) “Virtual management is all about context,” which means that while “real devices have real, fixed relationships both with each other and with services, virtual devices can’t have real relationships at all, so you have to be able to create a framework for management using the  same principles of virtualization that you applied to services.”

In other words, the transition to virtualization requires a careful migration across a minefield of potential traps that could prevent, as the skeptics in the Light Reading poll suggest, NFV from ever getting out of the lab. That the CloudNFV group by exploiting technologies of members Overture Networks Inc., Qosmos, EnterpriseWeb LLC , Dell Inc. and 6WIND has devised a way to accommodate implementation of virtualized elements in the context of legacy network operations allowing both domains to be managed in accord with their native requirements is an encouraging sign. Other such efforts are underway as well.

The mobile industry has been especially aggressive in embracing virtualization as a way to overcome complexity and eliminate bottlenecks in fast-evolving infrastructures. ABI Research predicts spending on virtualization of mobile networks will reach nearly $6 billion by 2018. A recent study conducted by Strategy Analytics and sponsored by Tellabs finds virtualization could save mobile operators more than $4 billion in capital expenses on backhaul networks by 2017.

“Until now, we’ve seen too little quantification to support SDN business cases for service providers,” says Tellabs president and CEO Dan Kelly, “The Strategy Analytics report provides solid evidence and examples to demonstrate SDN’s true value to customers. Based on customers’ input and the compelling business cases we’ve identified, we plan to incorporate SDN functionality into the Tellabs 8000 intelligent network manager, and into Tellabs 8600 and Tellabs 7100 products, early in 2014.”

According to Doyle Research, NFV implementations are not far off, with early use cases anticipated by sometime in 2014. Offering a bit less aggressive prediction than ABI has for just the mobile sector, Doyle projects the total fixed and mobile market for NFV software, server and storage products will be $5 billion by 2018. While citing legacy installations and the relative immaturity of some technology components to NFV as inhibitors to implementation, Doyle says key benefits tied to faster time to market, dynamic scalability and lower capital and operations costs will drive service providers to put NFV in play.

The new ETSI specifications are a good start toward normalizing these efforts, but there’s much more to be done in the realm of standardization, says NFV ISG chairman Sen. “We challenge the industry to work with us to get NFV and related technologies into the mainstream of the networking industry, and to make them the mainstay of service provider networks,” Sen says.

With participation from over 150 companies worldwide, his call obviously won’t be falling on deaf ears. The first five published specification documents include four ETSI Group Specifications (GSs) designed to align understanding about NFV across the industry, he says. They cover NFV use cases, functional requirements, the architectural framework and terminology.

The fifth GS defines a framework for coordinating and promoting public demonstrations of proof-of-concept (PoC) platforms illustrating key aspects of NFV. Its objective is to encourage the development of an open ecosystem by integrating components from different players. This should establish some degree of uniformity among undertakings like CloudNFV and CloudBand.

“These publications provide important guidance to the industry on the requirements that should be the basis for future development of NFV technology,” Sen says. “ETSI’s openness to all players means that we have been able to involve everyone and reach a broad consensus. The documents, and the PoC framework in particular, send a strong message that we want to encourage multi-party interoperability and the growth of an open ecosystem.”

More detailed specifications are scheduled for 2014. To avoid duplication of efforts and to minimize fragmentation among multiple standards development organizations, NFV ISG is also undertaking a gap analysis to identify what additional work needs to be done, and which bodies are best placed to do it, Sen notes.