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Going virtual

Network Function Virtualisation (NFV) promises to significantly change the way telecom networks are built and operated. However, there remain several challenges to widespread adoption.telecoms

NFV has been a hot subject for a few years now, as a technology that promises to transform telecom networks by migrating network functions from dedicated hardware to software running on virtual machines. The proponents of the technology say NFV will reduce OPEX and enable service providers to introduce new services via improved network flexibility and agility.

Besides, NFV is being championed by the industry as a standards-based approach to virtualising a host of telecom applications on industry standard servers, which will allow operators to simplify operations and introduce new services quicker.

“A potential growth area for telecom service providers is to expand into other industry segments. NFV is an important step in order to explore these opportunities. This is the opportunity for our industry to leverage existing connectivity and infrastructure to provide platforms and systems, as well as to integrate seamlessly with the IT environment to address a broader spectrum of new business opportunities,” says Murat Sahinoglu, Head of Core and Cloud, Ericsson Middle East.

Huawei also believes that NFV offers carriers exposure to new capabilities that, in turn, will open new market opportunities and revenue sources.  “We understand that the true business value – based on an agile, virtualised network – is found in the NFV-based revenue, over and above the reduced OPEX,” says Sun Xiaofeng, Executive VP and Head of Marketing and Solution Sales, Huawei Middle East. “With that being said, NFV is seen by Huawei and the rest of the industry as an enabler for actual digital transformation.”

Another big promise of NFV is the dramatic reduction in time-to-market for the telco industry, as it struggles to fend off competition from OTT players. It also helps them to move beyond the traditional approach to infrastructure, which is to adopt new capabilities in the form of new hardware platforms and layer on top of one another, leading to complexity and increased costs.

Deepak Narain, Senior Manager, Systems Engineering at VMware, says NFV also opens the door to the quicker provisioning and installation of services that were typically considered only available from specialised vendors and delivered on specialised hardware. It means that services can be delivered, scaled, billed and torn down programmatically – bringing massive economies of scale to even the smallest service provider.

“It also means a massive improvement in the ability to innovate  – NFV means the traditional silos that defined the telco enterprise can be broken down, services that were typically distinct can now be chained and orchestrated together in new and innovative ways,” he adds.

Though NFV holds the power to transform telecom networks, adopting it will require significant technological maturity and organisation change. “The full scale deployment of NFV will fundamentally change the telecom infrastructure,” says Christian Bartosch, Associate Director at Boston Consulting Group Middle East. “The transformation challenges are taken to a completely new level when the virtualisation platforms are no longer dedicated but shared as a NFV cloud or network function virtualisation infrastructure (NFVI). To map a network function to NFVI requires a sophisticated management and orchestration solution which ensures the required operational performance and resilience. Ensuring 99.999 percent application availability on NFVI, across several physical data centres with application data – such as state information – in the cloud, is still very challenging.”

Hicham Alj, Global head of End-to-End Telco Cloud Sales, Nokia, agrees that the adoption of NFV will be a transformation journey for telecom operators from technical, operational and organisational perspectives. “This will require the enhancement of service lifecycle managements and procurement to realise time-to-market benefits, and the creation of new networking management and orchestration processes for virtualised networking,” he says. “Telcos will also need to transform their OSS to deal with both virtualised and physical functions.”

On the technology front, ensuring the security of the network is not compromised by the introduction of NFV technologies is another daunting task.

“In the networking industry, new technologies are often met with skepticism in terms of associated possible risk and threats,” says Adrian Pickering, VP-MEA, Juniper Networks. “With NFV, this can be attributed to the fact that the added components, interfaces and capabilities can provide further opportunities for cyber-attack by those with malicious intent.”

Operators can tackle such challenges by having the right combination of preventative and proactive measures in place. One of the most effective ways to do so is by streamlining operations. Using security zones allows virtual network functions (VNFs) to be deployed on hosts that satisfy pre-defined criteria that is pertinent to security, such as location and level of hardening, Pickering says.

Ericsson’s Sahinoglu adds that the security challenges related to NFV requires vendors, operators, enterprises, developers, governments and users to work together.  “Through collaboration, openness and transparency, we will be able to ensure that the optimal level of security is achieved. Global standards and best practices are fundamental to the efficient handling of threats as well as to building economies of scale, avoiding fragmentation and ensuring interoperability,” he adds.

At its core, the underlying concept of NFV is the same as SDN, and industry experts say these two technologies complement each other, and don’t represent an either-or proposition.

Both SDN and NFV capitalise and depend heavily upon virtualisation to enable their respective capabilities — and to deliver upon their promises to separate connections and packet handling from overall network control (SDN) while combining and consolidating specialised functions and capabilities on standard hardware elements (NFV).

“The pairing of SDN with NFV allows for better service-oriented traffic steering and service chaining. As a complementary approach to SDN, in which fixed-function routing has been placed under software control, NFV has been adopted recently by a number of operators,” Xiaofeng says. “NFV enables virtualisation of network functions based on commodity servers, switches, and storage devices with functionality adjustable through software, including carrier-grade network address translation (CGN), wide area network acceleration, and enterprise access routing.”

Nokia’s Alj echoes a similar opinion. “NFV and SDN are widely considered to be the two complementary forces that will shape the future of telecommunications networks. NFV alone can’t provide all the needed attributes to achieve the above benefits and promises. SDN is providing the flexible connectivity both at data centre level and on  a geographic scale among the NVF components.”

Besides, it appears the kinds of functions that NFV seeks to deliver work well within the framework defined for SDN, and that services defined for NFV will help provide the necessary abstraction and separation of the network control and data/packet planes. It might be serendipity at work, but this combination appears to offer potent potential for the next revolution in telecom networking.

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