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Pushing through Glass Ceilings at the SDN World Congress 2016

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Live from the SDN World Congress Show in The Hague, Pravin Mirchandani, CMO, EKINOPS, reflects on the industry challenges steering the dialogue at this year’s conference.

In Gartner’s hype cycle, there is an inevitable time of disillusionment that follows the initial excitement of a new technology. At the SDN World Congress this feels different: although we have probably passed the peak of inflated expectations, there is less a trough of disillusionment, rather a set of major impediments that need to be cleared away in order to achieve the nirvana of SDN/NFV. Most actors can see what needs to be done and are steadfastly supporting the initial objectives but my impression is that breaking through to achieve the goals of network virtualization is like pushing through the famous glass ceiling. Though not created by prejudice, as in the traditional definition of glass ceiling, the barriers are real and there are many.

Glass Ceiling 1: Complexity One of the goals of software-defined networking is to reduce dependence on an army of network experts, who are difficult to recruit and retain, expensive to hire and prone to error. What’s clear is that what they do is indeed complex; and converting their expertise and processes into automated software processes and APIs is equally if not more complex, as there is a distinct lack of established practices and field-proven code to draw upon. Many of the speakers at SDN World Congress mentioned the issue of complexity and this was a constant theme in the corridor discussions. Laurent Herr, VP of OSS at Orange Business Services stated that Orange estimated it would take 20,000 man-days to convert their tens of IT systems to achieve virtualization.

Glass Ceiling 2: Culture Another common theme was the issue of culture. Telcos have been organised to deliver the ‘procure-design-integrate-deploy’ cycle for new services and have a well-established set of linear processes and organizational silos to achieve it. Introducing virtualized services however requires a DevOps culture based on agility, fast failing (anathema to the internal cultures of Telcos) and rapid assembly of multi-skilled teams (especially collaboration between network and IT experts) to deliver new outcomes, frequently, fast and reliably. Achieving a DevOps culture was one of the most frequently cited challenges by the Telco speakers at the Congress. Another common word they used was transformation.

Glass Ceiling 3: Lack of Expertise It’s difficult to estimate the number of engineers that really understand the principles and practices of virtualization but they probably number in the low hundreds across the globe. Given the ability of the vendors to pay better salaries, it’s a safe bet that the majority work for them rather than for the Telcos. Growing this number is difficult as it requires combining IT, programming and network skills. Creating collaborative teams helps but finding or training people to achieve mastery of the different skills is a challenge for the whole industry. This was more of a corridor conversation rather than openly cited by the speakers but it is a glass ceiling nevertheless.

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Fifty Shades of NFV?

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In the racy world of CPE architecture, what virtualization-hungry service providers say they want isn’t always what they need, says Pravin Mirchandani, CMO, EKINOPS.

Alright, perhaps ‘racy’ is going a bit far, but as the virtualization industry moves out of ‘does it work’ and into ‘let’s make it happen’, pulses are certainly starting to quicken. Not least because service providers are having to make tough calls about how to architect their management and orchestration (MANO). Many of these decisions revolve around the deployment of virtualized network functions (VNFs), via some form of customer premises equipment (CPE).

Several ‘shades’ are emerging, each with their advantages and drawbacks.

The ‘NETCONF-enabled CPE’ model emulates what we have today: a fixed number of physical network functions (note: not virtual) are embedded into a traditional L3 multi-service access router. The key difference here is that the router, as its name suggests, supports the NETCONF management protocol and can, as result, be managed in a virtualized environment. In truth, this is a pretty rudimentary form of virtualization; the router can be managed by a next-generation OSS with NETCONF and its embedded physical functions can be turned on and off remotely, but that’s about it. The device is not reprogrammable, nor can its network functions be removed or replaced with alternatives. The market for this deployment model lies in two use-cases: Firstly, as a bridging solution enabling service providers to co-operate traditional and virtualized network services simultaneously, facilitating migration. Secondly, given that many of today’s VNFs are heavy and need considerable amounts of memory and processing resources in order to operate, the more flexible white-box alternatives are costly in comparison. Specialist vendors like OneAccess have been developing dedicated CPE appliances (with embedded PNFs) for years, where compact and efficient code has always been a design goal in order to keep appliance costs under control. For more conservative operators that are keen to get ‘in the game’, the proven reliability and comparative cost efficiency of this model can offset its relatively limited flexibility. Rome wasn’t built in a day and some operators will prefer to nail the centralized management and orchestration piece before investing heavily in pure-play virtualization appliances for the network’s edge.

A purer approach is to invest in a ‘thick branch CPE’ or, in other words, an x86-based white-box solution running Linux, onto which VNF packages can be either pre-loaded and, in the future, removed and replaced or even selected by customers via, say, a web portal. This approach delivers far greater flexibility and is truer to the original promise of NFV, in which the network’s functions and components can be dismantled and recomposed in order to adjust a service offer. The snag, however is that white-box CPEs come at a cost. More memory and more processing power mean more cash. That’s why the race is on to develop compact VNFs, so they can minimize processing requirements and, as a result, enable a limited spec white-box to do more, with less. Again, unsurprisingly, those ahead of the curve are VNF vendors that have the experience of wringing every last drop of performance out of compact and cost-efficient appliances, purpose-designed for operators and service providers.

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