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Navigating Network Virtualization

By: Jesse Cryderman

I got my first taste of virtualization in the mid-90s when I began using video-game emulators to play classic arcade games on my PC. I was essentially running multiple virtual machines on commodity hardware—in this case, a home-built desktop computer with an equally home-built water cooling rig. The expensive, proprietary and specially designed hardware of arcade game consoles was effectively replicated by inexpensive, open-source software, and enabled me to play classic shooters from the golden age of arcade games and the entire catalog of Atari, Nintendo, Sega and TurboGrafx titles. My PC could function as any gaming platform I preferred, or even two or more platforms at once, while still running MS Office on Windows in the background. I was hooked.

Fast forward twenty years, and we see virtualization has had a profound effect on nearly everything rooted in or bumping into technology, and now promises to reshape the very networks that deliver communications, enterprise and infotainment services. The conversation regarding this network evolution is being dominated by two acronyms: software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV). By applying the concepts of virtualization to the network itself, both acronyms are poised to change the way networks are designed and controlled and how services are instantiated, monitored and managed. This transformation has the capacity to dramatically reduce operational expenditure (OPEX) and capital expenditure (CAPEX) as well as accelerate time-to-market, so naturally communications service providers (CSPs) are as excited about SDN and NFV as I was about my seemingly omniscient gaming machine. How excited, you might ask? A recently published Infonetics Research survey indicates that 97 percent and 93 percent of CSPs have plans to deploy SDN and NFV, respectively.

However, in a sea of alphabet soup, it’s important to remember that the business of telecommunications will not be saved or defined by a single acronym, and that, more often than not, three-letter acronyms don’t live up to their hype.  

CSPs manage massive, highly complex organizations and can’t just install an “emulator” per-se and reboot. They have multi-vendor environments that stretch across national borders. There are legacy investment lifecycles to consider, too. On top of that, native OSS and BSS interoperability is essentially non-existent, security is a very real concern, and there is some question as to whether or not virtualized network functions [such as deep packet inspection (DPI) or policy control] will be as robust and scalable in high-bandwidth implementations as battle-tested, purpose-built appliances. After all, minutes of downtime equals millions of dollars in telecom. Further, there is considerable market confusion surrounding SDN and NFV. In an SDN fact sheet published in 2013, Gartner warned CSPs to “beware of SDN-washing, which simply re-labels legacy approaches with the latest buzzwords.” After attending Mobile World Congress in February, I can attest that truer words have rarely been written. 

Regardless of the challenges and murky marketplace, NFV and SDN could very likely be the technologies that create a new business framework for CSPs, network equipment providers (NEPs) and OSS/BSS vendors. The communication and digital services business has evolved significantly, and a reimagined, virtualized network supports the holistic, non-linear view of the operational management platforms needed for CSPs today. It also mates nicely with the increasing symbiosis between the IT and telecommunication domains. Equally important, digital services are becoming more dynamic and alive–SDN and NFV have the potential to fulfill this transformation. In fact, Joe Hoffman, a director at ABI Research, wrote, “in the long run, operators embracing SDN and NFV will outrun their competitors with a much faster service velocity.”

Orchestral maneuvers in the light

It is exceedingly unlikely that CSPs will adopt one single SDN controller or one NFV solution to rule all others. No vendor wants to create an environment that could cannibalize its business, and CSPs are wary of lock-in created by single-vendor solutions. Plus, although it has rapidly gained attention, SDN and NFV is still nascent technology bereft of standardization. 

There are no broadly accepted SDN standards, although development work is being performed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Open Networking Foundation (ONF).



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