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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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Thick & Thin: A Taxonomy of CPEs

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In presentations at virtualization conferences, and in our discussions with operators and service providers, there remains a lot of confusion surrounding the terms ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ as they relate to customer premises equipment (CPE). This is because the terms are used interchangeably, to describe different market segments, the density of network functions as well as the nature of the CPE itself.

The roots of ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ comes from the term ‘thin client’; a popular reference to a lightweight computer or terminal that depends heavily on a server or server farm to deliver data processing and application support. This contrasts with the PC, which performs these roles independently, and was somewhat disparagingly referred to as a ‘fat client’, or, more neutrally, as a ‘thick client’.

This heritage is important as we look to provide a taxonomy of CPEs, which will hopefully aid our understanding of their respective roles in the delivery of virtualized network services.

Generically, CPE or ‘customer premises equipment’ refers to the equipment provided by a service provider that is then installed with its customers. Historically, CPE referred mainly to the supply of telephony equipment, but today the term encompasses a whole range of operator supplied equipment including routers, switches, voice gateways, set-top boxes as well as home networking adapters.

Thick CPE refers typically to a router or switch that provides network functions at the customer premises. There are now three main types:

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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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