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NFV’s Obstacles Are Coming Into Focus

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NFV’s Obstacles Are Coming Into Focus

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nfv network-functions-virtualization carrier-network-virtualization sdn

Just how much work is ahead for network functions virtualization (NFV) became clear during sessions at last week’s Carrier Network Virtualization conference in Santa Clara, Calif.

Presenters were bullish on NFV, but during the course of a day, they brought up several obstacles the technology still has to maneuver.

Of course, you can’t expect perfection from NFV yet; the idea is only a year old. The concept has quickly captured the imaginations of large carriers, many of which originated the concept within ETSI, and of equipment vendors.

Beyond those first circles of participants, though, is an industry that’s trying to discern the distance between NFV’s promises and reality.

“The people in the audience — they’re wondering: How are they going to make the deployments they’re imagining really happen?” says Paul Parker-Johnson, an analyst with ACG Research. “This is the creation phase, and it’s a fun phase. But you can see the wheels turning: ‘If I put this in, how will I do things like monitor it?’”

SDN or Snake Oil?

NFV has big-carrier support in general, but is still drawing skepticism from other quarters. “You may well find that technologies that are understood in an IT organization are considered snake oil by engineering,” said Terry McCabe, CTO of Mavenir. “That’s where the sponsorship for NFV activities has to come from the very top. You need C-level [support].”

Sometimes even that isn’t enough. Greg Raleigh, CTO of startup ItsOn Inc., said his company’s work got championed by the top echelon at Vodafone — but he was undercut. “All of the guys at the bottom were terrified we were going to replace their organizations,” Raleigh said. “We were replacing boxes that they were hugging for 20 years, and they were very nervous, so they kicked Vittorio [Colao] in the shins until he fell over.”

(ItsOn is the platform behind Zact, which is the mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) behind the newly launched Disney Mobile service.)

Even the service providers agree that service providers can be reticent to new ideas. “It’s like a game of chess,” said Matt Beal, CTO of CenturyLink. “You have to employ all the different moves you know and all the different tactics — and you don’t tell people. [You say], ‘Here’s our hosted network security platform,’ and you don’t tell them what’s under the covers.”

Of course, carriers aren’t the only ones that will be slow to change. Telecom Italia recently ran into what you might describe as passive-aggressive resistance from vendors, as it sought ways to virtualize a WebRTC gateway. “We performed an RFI … and the legacy telco equipment providers suggested solutions that were more or less on propriety hardware, while new providers proposed solutions based on software,” said Maurizio De Paola, a Telecom Italia senior project manager and senior researcher.

NFV: So Far, Encouraging

Anecdotes about early NFV experiments showed there’s lots of promise — one example being early work on a virtual content delivery network (CDN) that Orange has been tinkering with at its labs in France. “The results are, so far, encouraging, but they cannot be used for benchmarking, that’s what I’ve been told,” said Christian Kolias, senior research scientist at Orange, who gave a presentation on ETSI’s progress with NFV.

Telecom Italia’s De Paola described some in-lab progress on NFV as well. Telecom Italia is working on virtualizing the Media Resource Function, a DSP-based appliance that’s involved in delivering multimedia services. Part of the hope here is to be able to improve MRF performance without having to change to new DSPs (i.e. swapping out hardware) at every step.

Doug Ranalli, founder, chief strategy officer of NetNumber, gave a talk about his company’s experience turning a network function — the Titan signaling and routing platform for carriers’ voice and messaging services — into virtual form.

NetNumber found that CPU and memory access were “simply perfect,” Ranalli said. Disk-drive access was horrendous, however. “I have no doubt that would improve, but considering how many things worked so perfectly, I was surprised to see that aspect of it not work well.”

A more serious, ongoing problem is the lack of standard interfaces into an orchestration layer. “We’re all going to be asked to deploy technology in a virtual infrastructure. Well, something’s got to turn up those virtual servers and turn down those virtual servers,” Ranalli said. He expects he’ll have to “build links into customer-specific orchestration models.”

Looming Questions

A couple of similarly big-picture concerns emerged during the conference. NFV requires a rethinking of the OSS/BSS layer. “That can have an impact on how we redesign and architect our networks,” adding that carriers are disappointed in the level of activity around the problem so far.

Some of the revamped OSS/BSS pieces could fit into the management and orchestration layer that’s part of the ETSI NFV framework, Kolias believes.

CenturyLink’s Beal offered an even larger problem, in a figurative sense: “We have to figure out: What does intercarrier SDN look like?” he said. That sounds important, but it also sounds like something that might wait for Phase 2. The industry needs to get SDN and NFV working first.


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