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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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