NFV, Telecom, and Enterprise: We know what we are, but know not what we may be

153756157_jpgI attended the NFV World Congress, and I found the continuation of the increased intersection between Enterprise and Telecom Carrier Ecosystems. Traditionally, the world of telecom has been about signaling, switching circuits, radios, and the like. The introduction of NFV (network functions virtualization) had nudged the telecom world closer to the land of data center networking and cloud computing.

As many of you are aware, NFV takes functions such as firewalls or load balancers, currently provided by physical appliances, and places them into virtual machines. It's a logical extension of server virtualization that took hold in the mid-2000s, led early by VMware, but followed by Linux based virtualization such as KVM. These lessons are now being applied to telecom networks. Given that NFV is closely tied to networking and virtualization, SDN is a technology that is also closely aligned.

Interestingly enough, the world of NFV may become one of the most eager adopters of SDN, since the ROI based on CapEx and OpEx reduction is so clear. Enterprises have been examining SDN, but the adoption has taken a measured pace. Hyper scale cloud operators such as Google, Microsoft, and Facebook were early adopters of SDN, but they had different reasons—including the management of a large fleet of servers with almost uniform workloads. 

Telecom operators were accustomed to over-provisioning capacity to accommodate peak loads and to provide the high service levels expected of telecom operators. While this leads to carrier grade service, it also led to high costs, so the CapEx and OpEx reduction possibilities of NFV were enticing. Therefore, telecom operators have started to deploy many proof-of-concept (PoC) NFV projects. Example projects include those from telecom vendors such as Nokia, working together with Aalto University for providing a virtualized LTE network, or a telecom operator such as Deutsche Telekom on its TeraStream project. Of course, moving from PoC to production may take a while but the movement is already happening.

These projects of course deal with telecom specific technologies, such as Voice over LTE (VoLTE). Yet, telecom operators also are sliding closer to the world of cloud operators, as they create NFV platforms that are based on cloud orchestration platforms. Notable systems from telecom equipment providers include Alcatel-Lucent's CloudBand, Ericsson Cloud System, Huawei SoftCom, and Nokia Telco Cloud. (Note: Nokia will buy Alcatel-Lucent.) Major operators such as AT&T and Verizon in the United States, as well as many others will be using these systems as well as building their own.

Some of these systems utilize OpenStack as the foundational cloud orchestrator, due to the open, community driven nature of the design that accepts contributions from a variety of sources. VMware has also embraced OpenStack for telecom by introducing vCloud for NFV that runs on VMware Integrated OpenStack.

As the enterprise and telecom worlds mix with each other, I find the results interesting.  The world of OpenStack, previously primarily driven by vendors who provide the base technologies, is finally being influenced by the demands of operators with real use cases and experience. The telecom industry is complex and traditionally cautious, but it’s great that they are influencing a rapidly evolving OpenStack project. 

These telecom firms are realizing that they need to speed up and adopt a quick pace of innovation within their organizations. Even cable operators like Comcast have become eager contributors to OpenStack, especially in the area of networking, and it's been shown that parts of Comcast X1 platform, a streaming entertainment service, is running on OpenStack.

This brings us back to the foundational gear that runs the NFV systems. If parts of telecom NFV systems are beginning to resemble IT cloud systems, will they share the same underlying equipment? It's certainly happening on the software side. We see software companies such as Red Hat and VMware prominently displaying their wares at the NFV World Congress.  

Equipment vendors like Cisco, Juniper, or NEC, traditionally very strong in the telecom space are joined by IT companies like Dell, HP, and Intel, which have traditionally had a broad set of data center offerings. Given that these firms have a large portfolio, this move is not unexpected. Plus there are a number of firms that are focused on NFV for carriers such as Contextream or Affirmed Networks.

We also see crossover vendors. These are firms traditionally known for providing enterprise solutions that are now reaching into the NFV space. Kemp Technologies, whose load balancers have plugged into the Microsoft ecosystem by load balancing workloads such as Exchange, have now introduced frameworks to support NFV. Another example is F5, which provides reference architectures for NFV. Service orchestration companies like Anuta Networks provide solutions for both enterprises and service providers. Low-level network packet level technology firms such as 6WIND or Qosmos are somewhat agnostic, providing their solutions to both telecom and enterprise IT vendors, since a packet is, after all, a packet almost regardless of where it is.

Of course, not all companies will become crossover firms, as the two worlds will not be totally merged.  Yet, even they know that changes are coming in time. We know what we are, but know not what we may be. We must be patient, as this is the world of telecom.


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Topics: Networking Cloud Services & Orchestration