Thursday, January 22, 2015

The future is cloudy: NFV 2020

As the first phase of ETSI ISG NFV wraps up and phase 1's documents are being released, it is a good time to take stock of the progress to date and what lies ahead.

ETSI members have set an ambitious agenda to create a function and service virtualization strategy for broadband networks, aiming at reducing hardware and vendor dependency while creating an organic, automated, programmable network.

The first set of documents approved and published represents a great progress and possibly one of the fastest achievement for a new standard to be rolled out; in only two years. It also highlights how much work is still necessary to make the vision a reality.

Vendors announcements are everywhere, "NFV is a reality, it is happening, it works, you can deploy it in your networks today...". I have no doubt Mobile World Congress will see several "world's first commercial deployment of [insert your vLegacyProduct here]...". The reality is a little more nuanced.

Network Function Virtualization, as a standard does not allow today a commercial deployment out of the box. There are too many ill-defined interfaces, competing protocols, missing API to make it plug and play. The only viable deployment scenario today is from single vendor or tightly integrated (proprietary) dual vendor strategies for silo services / functions. From relatively simple (Customer Premise Equipment) to very complex (Evolved Packet Core), it will possible to see commercial deployments in 2015, but they will not be able to illustrate all the benefits of NFV.

As I mentioned before, orchestration, integration with SDN, performance, security, testing, governance... are some of the challenges that remain today for viable commercial deployment of NFV in wireless networks. These are only the technological challenges, but as mentioned before, operational challenges to evolve and train the workforce at operators is probably the largest challenge.

From my many interactions and interviews with network operators, it is clear that there are several different strategies at play.

  1. The first strategy is to roll out a virtualized function / service with one vendor, after having tested, integrated, trialed it. It is a strategy that we are seeing a lot in Japan or Korea, for instance. It provides a pragmatic learning process towards implementing virtualized function in commercial networks, recognizing that standards and vendors implementations will not be fully interoperable before a few years.
  2. The second strategy is to stimulate the industry by standards and forum participation, proof of concepts, and even homegrown development. This strategy is more time and resource-intensive but leads to the creation of an ecosystem. No big bang, but an evolutionary, organic roadmap that picks and chooses which vendor, network element, services are ready for trial, poc, limited and commercial deployment. The likes of Telefonica and Deutsche Telekom are good examples of this approach.
  3. The third strategy is to define very specifically the functions that should be virtualized, their deployment, management and maintenance model and select a few vendors to enact this vision. AT&T is a good illustration here. The advantage is probably to have a tailored experience that meets their specific needs in a timely fashion before standards completion, the drawback being the flexibility as vendors are not interchangeable and integration is somewhat proprietary.
  4. The last strategy is not a strategy, it is more a wait and see approach. Many operators do not have the resource or the budget to lead or manage this complex network and business transformation. they are observing the progress and placing bets in term of what can be deployed when.
As it stands, I will continue monitoring and chairing many of the SDN / NFV shows this year. My report on SDN / NFV in wireless networks is changing fast, as the industry is, so look out for updates throughout 2015.

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