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Senior Product Line Manager of SD-WAN at Ekinops

Tomorrow’s CPE: the Wimbledon of network virtualization?

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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!

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Two killer forces shaping the future of the CPE

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Powerful forces are steering the development of the CPE, explains Pravin Mirchandani, CMO at service-enabling network access specialist, OneAccess.

As the telecoms industry continues to hack a path toward network virtualization, the terms used to describe future customer premises equipment (CPE) are under almost continuous review. ‘White box’, ‘virtual CPE’ (vCPE) and ‘physical CPE’ (pCPE) each represent their own specific and shifting vision of how the network functions present in today’s CPE will be virtualized. But beneath the jargon, two powerful forces are steering the technology’s development.

1. The need to support non-Ethernet legacy connections

Ethernet is the assumed and, by and large, the only connectivity option for a low-cost white box approach, yet it is far from ubiquitously available as a WAN connectivity option at the customer premises. What’s more, the cost of increasing Ethernet coverage for connecting customer premises (typically by fiber) is growing as the lower cost, high-density deployment options become exhausted. Consequently, one of the key issues that virtualization faces is the need to support legacy connections between TDM-based PBX, alarm and other serial connections to various types of DSL-based WAN access technologies. This means that the bridging technology - the purpose-designed CPE - will be around for some time, especially for network connectivity devices and voice gateways.

2. To work, some functions need to be on the network’s edge

As the guy responsible for products at an access platform CPE vendor, what strikes me about our current work plan and roadmap is the huge amount of additional functionality that our CSP and MSP customers are asking us to deliver in our current-generation CPE. These include link management schemes for failover, bonding and offload; as well as shaping and event-based schemes, to ensure that business-critical Cloud-based applications flow regardless of the state of the network. Additional measurement capability is also being demanded, to remotely diagnose issues and ensure that SLAs are met. Security-hardening is also a request. The list goes on. By their nature, these types of intelligent functions have to reside in the CPE; you can’t failover, offload or measure local service levels remotely from the Cloud.

Given that you can’t economically ‘white-box’ legacy connectivity requirements, nor can you centralize network functions that rightly belong on the customer premises, only part of the CPE is ripe for virtualization. With this in mind, don’t expect today’s CPE appliances to disappear from the network’s edge any time soon.

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NFV: The Current State of Play

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Act One of the NFV show has finished, leaving operators to sift through the hype, piece together what they have learned and knuckle down to the serious business of design, feasibility and business case development. Pravin Mirchandani, CMO and NFV Evangelist at OneAccess, recounts some sentiments and soundbites from the NFV circuit.

1. Whoa! NFV is expensive!

Operators have now moved beyond best guess, back-of-the-envelope cost estimates. At least some measured CAPEX projections are in, and with them comes a grudging realization of quite how costly NFV is going to be. Why? Because operators must build x86 server farms right across their network in order to host their NFV infrastructure (NFVi); something which is going to mean a significant investment up front. What’s more, because virtualized traffic management requires the NFVi to be distributed (to provide appropriate location of network functions and traffic management right across the geographic reaches of the network), savings can’t be made by consolidating these farms on a single location. Sitting on top of the compute infrastructure, there is of course the software infrastructure and network functions, which also needs to be funded. What this has resulted in is a marked shift in focus to citing OPEX savings, service velocity and service agility as the main justifications for NFV, away from CAPEX reductions

2. We need SLAs, not just I/O

To date, when considering performance, the industry’s focus has been on input/output (I/O) but, given that virtualized network functions (VNFs) are sold as services to paying customers, I/O is only half of the story. To be commercial contenders, VNFs need to be associated with performance guarantees that are enshrined in service level agreements (SLAs). Further, an assessment of compute and memory footprint for each network function is required in order to assess deployment scalability. This is no great challenge where dedicated hardware is concerned, but when the network function is software-based (as with a VNF), located on a shared computing platform, the factors influencing performance are dependent on a range of resource-related variables, making guarantees harder to establish. This area needs serious attention before the NFV can move into a fully commercial phase with the major operators.

3. Pricing is all over the map

Many operators won’t open the door to a VNF vendor without full disclosure of their pricing model, especially as a couple of leading vendors have announced pricing levels that are considered by the operators as unreasonable. Pricing models also remain fragmented between vendors, making it difficult for operators to compare like for like. The software element, in particular, is a minefield. Unsurprisingly, some vendors are applying NFV pricing in accordance with the anticipated impact that NFV will have on their future hardware revenues. This is distorting the market at a very early stage, inhibiting assessment by the operator community.

4. VNF trials are defined by what’s available, not by what’s needed

A lamentable result of the current NFV market is that operators’ choices of VNF trials are being defined by availability, not strategic objectives. vCPE and virtual firewall functions have both been around for a while, but are these two functions the only ones that the operators want to do? Perhaps it’s too early to say. In any case, the real focus of today’s VNF trials is to successfully build the NFVi and nail down the orchestration and management pieces. In this sense, it doesn’t yet matter what the actual VNF is. Over time, this will change. Operators will begin to assess which VNFs are the most important for their business, and which will save them the most money? Ideally, operators should be bringing this thinking forward; if they settle on VNFs that differ from those they have trialled, it will be a struggle to understand the commercial, technical and operational implications.

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Packet-based traffic management is the optimum combination for hybrid access protocols

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As has been highlighted many times, a major focus of attention for vendors like OneAccess continues to be on working on innovations that ensure businesses have reliable high-speed access to their Cloud-based applications.

There can be little doubt that the Cloud is rapidly changing the fundamental nature of computing for businesses large and small. Analysts such as IDC are even going as far as predicting that terms like public and private clouds will eventually disappear from our vocabulary just becoming the de facto standard for business IT provisioning by as soon as 2020.

If IDC is right, the communications’ industry and its supply chain, over the next five years, needs to agree on the standards framework that will ultimately drive the innovation needed to ensure reliable high-speed Cloud access for all businesses and individual users alike. At the moment for some, having a connection that they can depend on can still be a lottery based ultimately on their physical location and local link options.

Application performance and availability are the major factors that are determining the rate of Cloud adoption across the board, with restricted bandwidth and traffic congestion often cited as among the primary reasons for delayed migration. If users cannot be guaranteed that they will not be faced with frequent disruptions and poor quality of experience (QoE) they are unlikely to fully embrace the Cloud in the time-frame that IDC suggests.

In cases where fiber has not yet reached the cabinet (nor is likely to any time soon) the only realistic and viable solution to overcome these objections is to find ways of efficiently aggregating multiple connections to boost the capacity of the available links. There are several multi-path protocols such as IFOM that help boost performance in the Wifi/3GPP mobile networks, but an industry standard approach is yet to fully emerge for the aggregation of Wifi, LTE, xDSL and even broadband satellite links between the CPE and a central hybrid aggregation gateway.

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IoT encryption: A revenue driver for CSPs

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Back in July 2014, an Intel study(1) indicated that 41% of IT managers and directors identified data protection as a key obstacle to overcome before the Internet of Things (IoT) could be fully embraced. 44% cited data encryption as the answer to this problem.

Since then, despite IoT dialogue intensifying, relatively little attention has been given to how IoT data from fleets of connected devices will be secured. Perhaps ‘devices’ is the wrong word. For manufacturing plants, together with hotels, gas stations, retailers and a host of other enterprise beneficiaries, IoT is less about investing in new technologies and more about retrofitting sensors to existing machines and other physical assets.

This matters because IoT sensors have limited processing power and, as a result, are incapable of performing heavy duty computational functions, like encryption. So where does this leave us? We know that encryption is a deal breaker for IT decision makers but, at the same time, it seems beyond reach.

Happily, the solution is also a revenue opportunity for communication service providers (CSPs), and involves encryption being performed at a central point before the data is transmitted across the WAN. After all, the biggest risk to corporate data security does not come from the factory floor, the hotel staff, or the gas station attendant; it comes from the threat of that data being intercepted by a third party as it is being transmitted across the web.

By using a customer premises-based router as a managed service delivery platform, CSPs can centralise all of a customer’s IoT data from across their sites and provide encryption as a service, pre-transmission. What’s more, because the CPE’s functions are managed by the CSP, it is about as tamper-resistant a piece of hardware as the enterprise is likely to find.

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Business Continuity and Quality of Service (QoS): The Keys to CSP Success in the Age of IoT

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According to IDC, ‘the IoT opportunity’ for service providers focuses on assembling blended solutions comprising connectivity services, infrastructure, purpose built IoT platforms, app security, analytics and professional services. To succeed communication service providers (CSPs) must focus on Business Continuity and Quality of Service (QoS), explains Pravin Mirchandani, CMO, OneAccess.

By 2020, there will be 26 billion devices connected on the Internet of Things (IoT) across a wide range of vertical sectors. Over the next five to 10 years, almost everything that can be connected will be connected, resulting in staggering year-on-year hikes in IP network traffic. Manufacturing plants, transport and infrastructure providers, energy providers and hospitals together with a host of other enterprises reliant on real-time data streams from multiple, distributed sources have the most to gain, but also the most to lose. By monitoring the real time status of critical devices - on connected busses, trains, planes and ships, for example, or in automated machinery on a manufacturing production line – critical event response times and all their associated costs can be cut dramatically. But if the performance of the IoT network is degraded by data overload then all such benefits will be reversed, resulting in consequences ranging from the inconvenient to the catastrophic.

Telecom and CSP networks, which will carry the lion’s share of IoT data, are already under strain as operators grapple with infrastructure obsolescence and continuing hikes in traffic. Currently, most IoT projects remain either at the proof of concept or pilot stages, but this won’t last. The first generation of commercial deployments are now right around the corner.

For service providers, according to IDC, ‘the IoT opportunity’ focuses on assembling blended solutions comprising connectivity services, infrastructure, purpose-built IoT platforms, app security, analytics and professional services.

In this effort, both business continuity and Quality of Service (QoS) must be treated as absolutely fundamental. Establishing always-on connectivity is the first critical step. The further challenge is the requirement for an IoT application infrastructure to run quickly and consistently, especially where real-time delivery is required for determining availability and status. Some deployments will be localized to specific smart objects or smart buildings. Others however, will span smart cities, countries and continents and require the automated and real-time analysis of data from thousands or, potentially, hundreds of thousands of devices simultaneously.

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NFV: Time to Get Back to (Virtual) Reality, for the Sake of the Operators

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Pravin Mirchandani, CMO, OneAccess, calls for 'plausible NFV' amid a world of ill-judged proof-of-concepts.

NFV has been voraciously hyped and with good reason; there is much to get excited about. The potential benefits to operators and communication service providers (CSPs) of enabling a virtualized and service oriented network environment are vast: increased network flexibility, additional security, reductions in network OPEX/CAPEX, dynamic capacity adaptation according to network needs and, perhaps most crucial of all, reduced time to market for new, revenue generating network services that can combat declining ARPUs. NFV really could be the silver bullet that operators and CSPs have been looking for.

But there’s a storm brewing for 2015. So excited has the networking industry become that its NFV gaze has focused almost universally on the end-game: an idealized world in which new services are ‘turned up’ as part of a complete virtualized service chain. Perilously little has been said about how operators will migrate to utopia from the battlegrounds of today.

To date, the central migration message coming from the big five networking vendors has been: ‘Trust us. We’ll get you there.’ Needless to say operators, whose collective future may be determined by their success with NFV, are far from comforted by such assurances. Many have endured vendor lock-in for decades and, as a result, are rightly viewing this first wave of proprietary NFV proof-of-concepts (POCs) with a healthy dose of scepticism. Given a viable and open alternative, NFV could be their chance to break free.

It’s not only vendor lock-in that operators should fear. In their haste to establish NFV dominance, many vendors have NFV-ized their existing lines of routers and switches by installing x86 cards and are now conducting operator POCs via this generic computing environment. This is sledgehammer NFV in action; it may prove that the theory behind NFV is possible, but it is seriously lacking in plausibility when any kind of scaled migration path is considered. Cash-strapped operators are highly unlikely to stomach the significant price premium required to install x86 cards across their entire CPE infrastructure. Moreover, x86 does not always deliver the optimized performance needed for the volume packet handling and SLA requirements for today’s network services, and in the operators’ last-mile network, there are far too many access link combinations required to enable the physical hardware to be done away with any time soon. ADSL, VDSL, S.HDSL, among others, plus cellular for radio access (frequently used for backup), together with SFP ports to support different fiber speeds and optical standards, are not readily available in an x86 platform, and could only be made so at a prohibitive cost.

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SDN/NFV – Is it the breakthrough CSPs need to help level the OTT playing field?

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I think that it is fair to say that the business communications services market is going through one of its most challenging periods at the moment as CSPs struggle to come to terms with the demand for faster, more reliable and feature-rich services from their customers, whilst also dealing with increased competition and the inevitable pressure this puts on prices. Although this is a typical and predictable scenario in what is a rapidly maturing tech-based market, it means that service providers cannot afford to assume that their customers will continue to renew their contracts out of a sense of loyalty, no matter what.

With increased choices for core communications requirements such as telephony and business application services readily available from specialist 3rd party providers in the Cloud, the CSPs’ pipe is now in danger of becoming regarded as just another basic utility along with the mains power and water services any organization needs to function. The challenge for CSPs is to find ways to tap into the new revenue potential, and compensate for ARPU decreases, by offering innovative new services themselves and fighting back against the OTT players who are increasingly eating more of their lunch. But it is not easy to see how this can be achieved without a radical change to their existing core infrastructure and CPE access technologies.

Given this challenging picture, the arrival of SDN/NFV technology on the scene could be the timely and welcome development CSPs have been looking for. With the potential to level the playing field and enabling the rapid rollout of new services virtually on demand, service providers could realistically begin to compete on price, features and functionality with pure-play hosted service operators.

SDN, and NFV functionality in particular provides the prospect of enabling service providers to add new features or switch existing services on and off in alignment with customers’ changing needs without having to install new network edge devices or change the CPE. When combined with the ability to remotely manage and provision unlimited numbers of individual routers from a central office location it means the proposition could literally be a game-changer for service providers.

SDN/NFV however, represents both opportunity and challenge for CSPs. Its promise of agility, flexibility and reduced costs are highly attractive but implementing SDN/NFV across their current silo-based organization and changing well-established business practices will be a non-trivial and lengthy set of people-oriented tasks to navigate. CSPs are also looking to vendors to progress beyond architectural and vision statements and show them some real use-cases for this new technology.

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Agile businesses of all sizes need communications partners that can offer flexible, future-proof solutions

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There is no doubt that the operational and financial appeal of “The Cloud” is gaining more traction each year and across a wider spectrum of businesses, with Gartner[1] predicting that more than half of IT spend will be Cloud related in 2016 and over half of large enterprises having a public/private hybrid Cloud platform by 2017.

What is also evident is that the more the “X-as-a-service” range grows the more the Cloud becomes a compelling and realistic option for mid-size and smaller agile businesses, who see the flexibility it offers not only as a way of controlling costs but also critical in terms of staying competitive by enabling greater alignment between IT consumption and market fluctuations. This pragmatic approach particularly applies to multi-branch organizations where application and data sharing is crucial to the productivity of the business, which otherwise could mean significant IT investment in potentially redundant LAN-based resources and expensive localized support systems.

To derive the full benefit from the Cloud, agile businesses need to engage with equally agile communications service providers (CSPs), which are able to deliver fast and reliable access capable of supporting a broad range of granular, all-IP based services in an exclusively WAN-dependent environment. Using the same argument it follows that agile CSPs need equally agile technology vendor partners, who can help them to respond to the evolving demands of their customers with flexible and scalable products at competitive price-points.

Traditionally, CSPs have had limited choices when it comes to selecting the CPE router devices that provide the access gateway to the Cloud, particularly for the highly competitive and price-sensitive small to mid-range branch office sector. Although the leading router vendors such as Cisco are geared towards the major enterprise market, in the perceived absence of a real alternative these well-known suppliers have typically gone on to become incumbent partners for many CSPs.

However, we are now seeing this trend beginning to break down as CSPs look to gain competitive advantage in a buyers’ market and last year our new generation of multi-service routers, purpose-designed for CSPs, over two quarters out-shipped Cisco in Europe for the smaller, branch office customer sector. These routers not only enable CSPs to offer high performance SLAs but provide a platform for a range of value-added services that can both enhance the user experience and ensure efficient bandwidth provisioning for both data and voice-based, fixed-line and mobile, communications.

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Latest News

  • EKINOPS Hires New CTO

    EKINOPS (Euronext Paris - FR0011466069 – EKI), a leading supplier of telecommunications solutions for telecom operators and businesses, announces the appointment of Vincent Munière as its new Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Research and Development (CTO and VP of R&D). He will strengthen the EKINOPS technology vision, accelerate software innovation and lead the Group’s engineering and support team.

     
  • EKINOPS Announces Partnership Agreement with Lanner

    EKINOPS (Euronext Paris - FR0011466069 – EKI), a leading provider of open, future-proof and flexible solutions for the access network, today announces the completion of a partnership agreement covering North America and Mexico between EKINOPS and Lanner Electronics, the global leader in Whitebox Solutions™ for SD-WAN, uCPE, vCPE, and MEC platforms.

     
  • Robust profitability for EKINOPS in H1 2020: EBITDA margin over 14% despite a turbulent environment

    EKINOPS (Euronext Paris - FR0011466069 – EKI), a leading supplier of telecommunications solutions for telecom operators and businesses, has published its first half 2020 financial statements (for the period ended June 30, 2020) as approved by the Board of Directors on July 27, 2020. The statutory auditors have conducted a limited review of the first half financial statements and will shortly issue the corresponding report.

     

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