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When the Rubber (Finally) Hits the Road: 2018 Predictions

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Looking ahead to 2018, Pravin Mirchandani, CMO, OneAccess Networks, anticipates a year of challenge and opportunity for operators.

Europe Starts to Get Serious about Virtualization

After a long period of experimenting with virtualization technology in their labs, European Telcos (or at least some of them) will get serious about introducing virtualized services for their enterprise customers. This is clearly apparent at Deutsche Telecom, in particular, but also at Orange and BT. I’d still hesitate to predict that we will see many actual service launches in Europe but nonetheless decisions will be taken, budgets will be committed and the new product introduction (NPI) work for virtualized services will begin.

The Cost of White-Box CPEs will be Driven Down but Not by Price Reduction

It’s clear that all the big Telcos are convinced about the benefits of an on-premise white-box strategy and while in 2017 they debated about how to move from grey-boxes, principally from Cisco and Juniper, right now they have a different problem: cost, particularly for the appliance they need for the volume part of the enterprise market, commonly known as the ‘small uCPE’.

Yet if half the cost of a white-box derives from a monopoly vendor – Intel – then, in the absence of competition (hint: think ARM), the only way to reduce costs will be to moderate demands on it. This will come from two directions. The business managers at the Telcos will insist on a smaller set of VNF requirements to reduce the number of cores and memory required (the two key drivers of costs for a white-box appliance) and the VNF vendors will gradually reduce their resource footprint in response to the Telcos’ demands.

The Operators Will Realise that SD-WAN is Actually a Marketing Problem

SD-WAN puts choice in the hands of enterprises and does so at reduced cost with automation removing complexity, a winning combination that is taking business away from many Telcos. So far, the Telcos have looked at this principally as a technology problem: how to build self-select portals to introduce choice for their customers, how to automate their back-end processes and how to co-opt SD-WAN technology without vendor lock-in.

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Why the time to move to NETCONF/YANG is now

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With backing from major NFV/SDN projects and industry organizations, NETCONF, the client/server protocol designed to configure network devices more clearly and effectively, will soon become ubiquitous. Operators who migrate to NETCONF can both future-proof their operations for NFV and can also reap some of short-term benefits of automation, today.

Why NETCONF/YANG?

By addressing the shortcomings of existing network configuration protocols like Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) and Command Line Interface (CLI), NETCONF was developed to enable more efficient and effective network management. SNMP has long been cast off by operators and CSPs as hopelessly complicated and difficult to decipher. CLI may be readable by a network engineer, but it is prone to human error and can lead to vendor lock-in, since propriertary implementations often mean that only one vendor’s element management system can manage their network elements.

NETCONF, on the other hand, is designed specifically with programmability in mind, making it perfect for an automated, software-based environment. It enables a range of functions to be delivered automatically in the network, while maintaining flexibility and vendor independence (by removing the network’s dependence on device-specific CLI scripts). NETCONF also offers network management that is not only human readable, but also supports operations like transaction-based provisioning, querying, editing and deletion of configuration data.

YANG is the telecom-specific modelling language that makes NETCONF useful, by describing device configuration and state information that can be transported via the NETCONF protocol. The configuration is plain text and human-readable, plus it’s easy to copy and paste and compare between devices and services. Together, NETCONF and YANG can deliver a thus far elusive mix of predictability and automation.

NFV needs NETCONF

What’s even more powerful is that NETCONF and YANG combined offer the flexibility needed to manage both virtual and physical devices. This means that operators can get going with NETCONF now, before they start ripping out old devices and replacing them with white boxes. This is a necessary investment in the future; as we look forward to a virtualized networking environment, where network functions are spun up and changed continuously, the high level of automation enabled by NETCONF/YANG is not just preferable, it is essential.

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ROI for white-box CPEs: a question of segmentation

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Operators commonly expect that moving to SDN and NFV will enable cost reductions, through efficiency gains in network management and device consolidation. As they get closer to deployment, however, commercial reality is telling a different story, depending on the market segment being addressed.

One area where the ROI for white-box CPEs is easy to justify is appliance consolidation. If you can consolidate a number of proprietary appliances into a single white-box CPE then the CAPEX savings are clear. Chaining, for instance, a vRouter, a WAN optimizer and a next-generation firewall into one single x86 appliance (i.e. a white-box CPE) delivers immediately identifiable cost savings: one appliance instead of three is basically the formula and this is a commonly targeted combination. Combine this with the prospect of increased wallet share from large enterprises, which often run their networks themselves in do-it-yourself mode, and the large enterprise segment looks increasingly attractive for operators.

Let’s be clear, though: this is just a large enterprise play. SMBs and multi-site deployments for government or highly distributed organizations have no need for WAN optimization and little need for a next-generation firewall; the on-board firewall that comes with their router together with a PC-based anti-virus subscription and email antispam service are usually sufficient. As a result, anyone working on building business cases for white-box CPEs for the volume part of the market will attest that ROI a tough nut to crack.

The draw for this market segment is the potential to increase ARPU by making it easier and more flexible to use additional services through automated service delivery via virtualization.

In terms of hardware CAPEX, the cost of white-box CPE deployment outstrips that of traditional CPEs. For the large enterprise segment which often deploys multiple appliances, this cost increase is compensated by reducing the number of appliances. For other market segments, where a single CPE is more typically deployed, savings need to come from OPEX reductions or TCO savings. The latter, however, is notoriously difficult to calculate and is usually irrelevant in a context where staff reductions are difficult to achieve, particularly in a period of technology transition.

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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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The White-Box CPE: Separating Myths from Reality

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In the world of customer premises equipment (CPE), the white-box is a new idea. It should then come as no surprise that misconceptions among operators and CSPs about what constitutes the white-box CPE are common. Here are four of the most prevalent.

Myth #1: The white-box CPE is just commodity hardware.

No. The software-hosting platform is the most important part! Google and Apple have succeeded with smart phones because they created killer platforms, carefully designed to provide a secure environment ready for third party developers to exploit, which enabled their apps base to proliferate. The white-box CPE is no different. Don’t get me wrong, it is still all about using commodity hardware, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s enabling potential stems from the software platform that controls the hardware, not from the hardware itself.

The same goes for the network functions running on the white-box CPE. They need to be installed, chained, activated, run, provisioned, monitored, charged and, of course, done so in a secure manner with maximum efficiency and predictability.
We’re not talking about any old software here, either. This is highly specialist, instance-specific software but unlike smartphones the functions are often dependent on each other. There are lots of open-source components that can carry out each of these tasks individually, but they also need to be integrated, managed with homogeneous, standardized APIs and provided with pre-packaged, documented use cases to facilitate their integration. We often see service providers adopting a DIY approach. But this only lasts until they realize the extent of work and the depth of know-how required to assemble all these pieces together. Building a demonstrator is one thing; warrantying the operational lifecycle over the lifetime of a service is another.

Myth #2: White-box CPEs are for everyone.

The whole idea of white-box CPEs is to foster the ability to take VNFs from multiple vendors and have the freedom to mix-and-match them according to the service provider’s desired functions, price and brand.
This is all good ‘on paper’. The reality, however, is different. Just like when specifying additional options on a car, the bill soon adds up. In fact, imagine being able to walk into a VW dealer and demand options from BMW, Mercedes, Honda and Ford. Welcome to the world of the white-box CPE!

Large enterprise can afford it because, right now, they are buying single-use network appliances and stacking them up in the customer’s premises. The white-box CPE’s promise of appliance consolidation is so great that the economics allow it to be expensive.

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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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