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

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.

Most importantly, however, is the need for operators to focus on the services, or virtual network functions (VNFs), that they wish to deliver. Today (over their legacy infrastructures) operators are just starting to introduce bundles of managed network services to enterprise customers and are generating much needed revenues as a result. In cash terms, the most valuable of these services (VPN encryption, application performance management and WAN optimization, are good examples) rely on intelligence being present at the edge of the network, as well as in the core. Locating ‘dual-headed’ functions such as these on the router itself makes by far the most sense, but will be a huge technical challenge to achieve via an x86 card.

Operators may go to sleep dreaming of a fully functioning virtualized infrastructure, but the tough truth is that they’re not going to wake up to one any time soon. Theirs is a world where every cent of network investment must be pegged against immediate performance gains. The slim budgets which do exist are focused on network imperatives, like tackling legacy infrastructure obsolescence and reducing TCO. For operators to commit to NFV beyond today’s POCs, they will need a staged, scalable and flexible migration strategy, which neither increases costs nor diverts budgets away from more immediate priorities. They also need managed migration. This means the ability to ‘activate’ VNFs only when they are ready to do so, otherwise the money simply won’t be spent. It’s high time that the vendor community understood this and adjusted their management of these customers accordingly.

With this in mind, OneAccess has spent the last three years preparing its product portfolio to address precisely these issues. While the big five have vied for influence in NFV, scrapping over ‘who leads the market’, OneAccess has been doing the heavy lifting. It has successfully separated the hardware-dependent forwarding plane from the ripe-for-virtualization control plane in its CPE routers and integrated the tail-f management framework; something that no other CPE vendor has accomplished. As a result, it can now enable both the virtualized management of each router and support the continued delivery of today’s legacy services as well as support dual-headed functions as VNFs. And finally, because OneAccess is an operator service-enablement specialist, its router platforms are purpose designed for this environment which, in the context of NFV, means they are open. Not only does this guarantee interoperability with each operator’s existing infrastructure, it also hands them a skeleton key which they can use to force the bigger vendors to follow suit.

As we move into 2015, fever-pitch excitement over all things NFV will subside and the serious business of service migration will take centre stage. For the sake of the operators, vendors in the networking industry can’t get back to (virtual) reality soon enough.

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