Despite the industry’s charge toward network virtualization, the need for customers to connect their routers to non-Ethernet legacy connections is not going away. Couple this with the fact that a bunch of emerging network functions require an on-prem appliance, and the virtualized ‘CPE of the future’ starts to feel, well, really rather physical. So, is the CPE the Wimbledon of the network; ever-present, resistant to change, but perhaps also capable of surprising us all with its innovations?
Take Wimbledon’s white dress code, for example; a deeply entrenched tradition that has become a defining characteristic of the tournament. But in recent years, however, the dress discipline has been partially relaxed. Today, the tournament accommodates at least some expressions of color. Similarly, the majority of CPE appliances that today deliver network connectivity and voice gateway functions are specialized devices, and will stoically remain so for the next few years. It’s just too expensive to do otherwise, until fiber with G.fast as a short-haul copper Ethernet extension become ubiquitous and all voice terminals are IP-based. Out of necessity, therefore, incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) will have little option but to support this CPE model. In other words, it looks like the traditionalists, both at the tennis and on the network, can rest easy. For now, at least.
But pressure to change is mounting. Competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs), together with alternative network operators, are more agile and, since they can target Ethernet-only network connections, can move more quickly to a vCPE approach. That said, some network functions will need to remain ‘on premise’, namely link management, service demarcation and service assurance. The network functions that can migrate to the virtualized center will do so over time. In our Wimbledon analogy, this equates to another tournament altogether, played on a far more contemporary surface than Wimbledon’s time-honoured grass. Competition indeed for the ‘historic home of tennis’.
The need for some functions to remain on premise means that the CPE will increasingly comprise hybrid devices – ones that support both traditional network functions and those located in a centralized and virtualized core. Incidentally, this won’t be just a single data center, but rather a set of distributed virtualized centers located with the network infrastructure (most likely at POPs) to mitigate traffic tromboning.
The huge IT challenge of accommodating virtualized delivery of services mean that the CPE will also need to become a multi-tongued device able to speak next-generation protocols – Netconf, Openflow – as well as traditional CLI, TR-069 and SNMP. It seems inevitably that that, after holding out for as long as they can, traditionalists at both Wimbledon and in the CPE, will be forced to accept some variations, but only within ‘proper’ limits of course!