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NFV Starts to Get Real

By Tara Seals May 26, 2015

Investment in rolling out cloud services has been a steady drumbeat—and getting louder—for years now. But 2015 will mark a new wrinkle in service provider strategies, as network function virtualization (NFV) begins to roll out in limited deployments and in network trials.

NFV is a network approach that essentially virtualizes network functions by creating them in software—software that can then be run on commercial off the shelf hardware housed in the cloud. The benefit of this is that network resources are freed from the proprietary hardware environment that’s the hallmark of most carrier networks today, breaking down management and OSS silos so that all of the network functions can be controlled from a unified orchestration layer. The end result is a dynamic, elastic network environment that can provide resources on-demand (being housed in the cloud) to services as needed—opening the door for service agility that will allow carriers to compete with Web and over-the-top (OTT) apps.  

This is, of course, a vision, and one that will take years if not decades to implement for entire networks.

“The fact is, there are a lot of brand-new technologies here. The concept of NFV is clear, but moving from the concept of virtualizing network functions to actually constructing a network in real life that’s virtualized, with centralized control and orchestration—this is a major task,” explained Michael Howard, principal researcher at Infonetics, in an interview. “Right now, there’s no way to just buy a solution off the shelf—a set of software and maybe some hardware—and deploy it. So NFV is still a work in progress.”

However, for NFV, the main driver is automation and agility, and these are powerful enough to spur many to dip their toes in the water.

“Carriers are motivated by watching the Googles and Amazons of the world develop new services and put them into place seemingly immediately,” Howard said. “It’s not just that the operators are seeing Internet content providers develop services quickly, it’s the fact that us as consumers and corporate users of information have come to expect that we can get what we want immediately. We’ve become accustomed to getting what we want when we want it and for however long that we want them.”

So, investment is starting to happen. "We are seeing strong signs that the end of the hardware era in carrier IP telephony will soon be upon us," said Chris DePuy, vice president of carrier IP telephony research at Dell'Oro Group.  "Some vendors are choosing to no longer take orders for hardware systems, while both vendors and service providers are engaged in significant trialing of network functions virtualization (NFV) systems involving carrier IP telephony functions.”

He added, “We expect that by the end of 2015, several service providers will be carrying live traffic over such systems.”

Dell’Oro isn’t alone in expecting the market to get going. Research firm Mind Commerce for instance estimates that the overall global market for NFV will grow at a staggering CAGR of 83.1 percent between 2015 and 2020.

Infonetics’ Howard agrees that a majority of operators are investing in NFV, but pointed out that right now, only a handful of operators in the world have actually deployed it.

“This is an indicator of how difficult it is,” he said. “Mainly, carriers struggle with how they can insert this new technology, as luscious as it may be, into their existing networks. Also, they think the technology is immature, not ready for primetime.”

He said that he expects to see 20 or 30 more limited deployments this year, and added that smaller operators will have an easier time of it thanks to having less complex networks.

“With larger operators it takes more time, because there are so many changes they have to make,” he said. “There are the OSS and BSS systems to update, and you have to build the interface to the customer, and decide what can be done in an automated way. There are a million details to solve. And how do you change the network so dramatically—and do it without disturbing existing revenue streams?”

He added that most of the big operators are planning to make NFV part of smaller parts of network in contained domains, for new services.

“You have to select carefully what you change, and make the impact on the rest of the network minimal,” he said.

Some operators are ahead of the curve: AT&T estimates that more than 75 percent of its network will be using a software-driven architecture by 2020. It has already started the process, and as a result has launched its Network on Demand. In just 80 seconds, using a self-service app, customers can adjust their network speeds as needed, and dial back down when traffic recedes, on the fly.

Pacnet is also deploying NFV at various points in its architecture, to support a range of services. Recently it announced that it had extended its Pacnet Enabled Network (PEN) into the optical layer to provide on-demand provisioning of network services up to 100G on the company’s privately owned trans-Pacific and intra-Asia submarine network systems. Based on NFV and software-defined networking (SDN), the configuration allows for high-speed capacity provisioning and automated fault restoration across its network systems. Together with its virtual appliances, wholesale carrier customers can orchestrate applications across multiple countries simultaneously, delivering cost-efficient virtualized network resources that their customers in turn can order and consume on demand.

“Pacnet continues to shape the adoption of SDN and NFV technologies through our continuous efforts to improve and enhance our fully-automated network provisioning platform, bringing the cloud experience to all layers of network,” said Jim Fagan, president of Managed Services at Pacnet. “The journey from launching PEN 16 months ago to enhancing its capabilities with NFV and extending the service to the optical layer marks a significant milestone for the company and the industry. We committed to our customers that we would build an automated network platform that can be tailored to their specific needs and we are keeping that promise.”

Edited by Rory J. Thompson

Contributing Writer

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