Cable Industry Acts to Drive Big Service Gains with vCPE

Stephane Bourque, president & CEO, Incognito Software

Stephane Bourque, president & CEO, Incognito Software Systems

Enabling Virtualization on Legacy CPE, Tapping Big Data Analytics and Facilitating Cross-Border Cooperation on Commercial Services Are Key Ingredients

By Fred Dawson

November 20, 2015 – New developments aimed at enhancing cable MSOs’ ability to derive immediate and far-reaching benefits from virtualization technology are adding impetus to operators’ preparations for a move to low-cost cloud-managed CPE in the residential and commercial markets.

One avenue of potential game-changing innovation is an unannounced and still vaguely described solution from Incognito Software Systems that would allow service providers to realize the benefits of virtualized CPE (vCPE) ubiquitously in residential and enterprise applications without waiting to replace legacy devices. On another track, CableLabs has undertaken initiatives aimed at fostering a unified approach to virtualization, including one that would encourage cooperative offerings of business services to a given customer across multiple MSO service areas.

Also notable in new developments is farther integration of the OSS/BSS suite of solutions provided by NetCracker Technology and the analytics and virtualization capabilities of parent company NEC Corp. “We’re enabling a hybrid approach to implementing virtualization incrementally through orchestration of operations between the physical and virtual worlds,” says Kirk George, director of strategy for cable at NetCracker.

The ability to ensure services are activated with all the back-office and functional requirements across the entire customer base in both residential and commercial services is fundamental to getting virtualization off the ground in the cable industry, which like other telecom segments is taking a stepped approach to implementing NFV (network function virtualization) and SDN (software-defined network) capabilities. “You have to be able to manage each customer’s services across all touch points, including ordering, activation, billing, CRM, self-care, e-commerce, social, etc., regardless of whether you’re using legacy or virtualized components,” George says.

Clearly, the moment for practical solutions aimed at enabling incremental virtualization has come, especially in the commercial services market, as evidenced by data-focused initiatives underway at CableLabs. As described in a recent blog by Carmela Stuart, director of business technologies at CableLabs, the goal is to create a common set of data APIs that will serve objectives related both to virtualization and to facilitating cooperation among MSOs providing services, virtualized or not, to the same company across multiple cable service boundaries.

By selecting global standards and defining extensions as needed, CableLabs intends to develop APIs that will “create a common data structure to automate the exchange of data,” Stuart says. This will serve to accelerate “the sales proposal, service delivery, and ongoing service assurance processes enabling cross-service providers’ ability for seamless service delivery and support for shared accounts that enterprise business locations present.” CableLabs has developed an online library of data artifacts, including data models and entity definitions as well as APIs, that will support operators’ ability to react to new market trends by shifting away from “the historical practice of housing data in a vertical format, which limits sharing across enterprise applications,” Stuart says.

As Stuart notes, the data-sharing enabling support for multiple MSOs’ cooperation on one account typically will apply to delivering Ethernet-based services to larger enterprises. But it’s also important that the APIs encompass support for virtualization of specific applications that can be overlaid onto the basic connectivity service for businesses of all sizes.

“While Ethernet services provide the backbone, small, mid and enterprise businesses are increasing the demand for dynamic applications and managed services,” she says. “Firewall, DDOS (distributed denial-of-service) mitigation, and multi-site VPNs are a few examples of managed security services that provide an important opportunity to increase revenue per unit served.”

Common data definition and access methods “will reduce the risk of supplier lock-in, simplify dynamic network management, and enable easy sharing of network data with peripheral applications (e.g., security, load-balancing, and analytic engines),” Stuart says. “Industry collaboration that leads to a well-defined data framework will enable the rapid development of new services that can be easily integrated between partner companies.”

The CableLabs initiative syncs up perfectly with goals pursued by NetCracker, which George says is working closely with CableLabs as well as individual operators to drive exploitation of the virtualization opportunities. Earlier this year NetCracker launched NetCracker 10 as a foundation for orchestrating applications across virtualized and legacy elements. The platform combines NEC analytics and virtualization components with the NetCracker BSS/OSS model, which is designed to integrate NetCracker modules with legacy vendor solutions onto a single platform.

The end-to-end NetCracker 10 solutions and services portfolio brings together comprehensive business and operations management offerings, big data analytics, service and network orchestration and virtual functions management onto a single cloud-enabled platform. “Now all your virtual components can talk to your operations management and BSS side,” George says.

One of the latest steps toward unifying the two companies’ strengths is an expansion of the NEC SDN Partner Space, a program that has brought together more than 40 companies to deliver SDN and NFV solutions to more than 250 installations worldwide. The new Partner Space portal accesses an SDN/NFV virtual labs environment supporting applications testing with NEC’s SDN controller and the two companies’ orchestration, vCPE, vEPC (virtualized evolved packet core) and OSS/BSS systems to help operators accelerate time-to-market and cut overhead in building new services.

The partnership solution also expedites bringing apps from third parties into the operator’s residential and commercial service domains, George notes. “We have a cloud broker service where we white label apps from our partners for seamless integration into the operator’s services,” he says.

Apps chosen by any operator are built into the catalog-driven back-office platform with support for all the elements required for bundling, tracking transactions and other facets of managing the partner relationship. This streamlining of partnership management can be especially important on the commercial services side, where operators taking advantage of the cloud can layer in whatever apps a particular business may want, he says.

Along with virtualization, George stresses the analytics contribution NEC is making to enhancing customer experience and revenue potential through personalization and quality assurance. “We’re able to aggregate data from all boxes and backend systems and pull it into our analytics platform or into analytics systems the operator may already have in place,” he says. With the ability to look at all data in one place, the platform can provide better insight into user behavior and tastes in support of advanced advertising, upselling and special features, he explains.

As George notes, in the incremental move to exploiting the benefits of cloud-based operations, vCPE is high on operators’ priority lists. “If I don’t have vCPE for residential services I only have visibility to the legacy device,” he says. “I don’t have visibility into smart TVs, mobile devices, game consoles. Virtualization allows you to have more visibility and per-device control in the home as well as greater service velocity.”

vCPEs are especially important for advancing new commercial service opportunities, he adds. “You’re eliminating a lot of truck rolls and the costs of upgrading equipment when you have to introduce new technologies,” he notes. “You can add VPNs, intrusion protection, firewalls, cloud storage and apps like Office 360 and other productivity solutions as customers register their orders through your self-service portals and call centers.”

All of these advantages of virtualization are maximized to the extent that operators can bring legacy CPE into the virtualization fold, as articulated by Incognito Software president and CEO Stephane Bourque. “The benefits of virtualization with decoupling of software and hardware go a lot farther and faster if you don’t need to modernize your whole population of CPEs,” Bourque says. “With our approach you can do this without having to perform firmware upgrades on the legacy CPE.”

The key to making this possible is the use of VLAN-like tunneling technology supported by DOCSIS interfaces to deliver the abstracted higher layers of functionally normally performed by the set-top or other legacy CPE, leaving those devices to perform the Layer 2 “dumb pipe” functions, he explains. In this fashion, all the new functions the CPE would not normally be able to support are performed in the cloud, allowing each device to be targeted for personalized applications that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

“All DOCSIS 2 and later generations of cable modems can do tunneling, which allows you to securely and automatically build tunnels between the CPE and the CPE functions hosted in the cloud,” Bourque says. “We change the configuration files to include different TLVs,” a reference to the Type Length View parameters that tell the CMTS (cable modem termination system) how the cable modem has been instructed to operate on the network.

“We’re talking to the CMTS to route certain things to the CPE,” he adds. “With our vCPE software, this allows the operator to deliver virtualized applications to that legacy CPE.”