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Network virtualization, led by Juniper, promises efficiency boost

Emerging network virtualization technology could enable telecom service providers to cut redundant hardware and carrier network management costs to create more efficient telecom networks.

Editor's Note: In this series, Telecom Network Optimization Options, looks at the latest techniques in telecom network optimization, from optimizing the content itself to caching and compression, and from optimizing physical infrastructure for wireless to network virtualization. The series evaluates how effective these methods are at meeting today's telecom business objectives.

For years, telecom networks have been Byzantine mazes. A telecom service provider might have a different network infrastructure for each service, each geographic area and each segment of customers.

When a carrier deploys hardware for a new music service, it will over-provision network capacity to ensure that no outages occur. That extra capacity will remain idle throughout the network ,except for the occasional peak-usage period.

Network virtualization, pioneered by Juniper in the telecom market, promises to help carriers make more efficient use of their disparate networks. 

Network virtualization, pioneered by Juniper in the telecom market, promises to help carriers make more efficient use of their disparate networks.

Virtualization technology has exploded in the enterprise networking world, allowing companies to scale services up and down as needed and improve overall hardware utilization rates. Telecom carriers have been slower to adopt virtualization, although typically cautious-to-a-fault service providers are eager to reap the benefits.

"[Virtualization] gives [service providers] a much more competitive network where they can deliver services faster on top of equipment that's really just equipment underneath these services, not just equipment that's supporting all these services," said Eve Griliches, an analyst with IDC.

Juniper appears to be leading the pack with the February launch of its TX Matrix Plus core routing system, which ties into the Juniper Control System 1200 and virtualizes routing systems, networks and services.

Before the Matrix Plus, Griliches said, service providers had to deploy one set of switches, storage, servers and other network equipment for voice offerings, another set for on-demand programming, and another for IPTV services. This approach leaves service providers with a lot of redundant hardware, and it doesn't exactly make them agile when it comes to speeder service development.

Service providers look to network virtualization advantages

While network virtualization is still in its early days, carriers are already looking to make sure the networks they build today are compatible with future virtualization technology.

"The big difference is [that] with the TX Matrix Plus and virtualization, service providers can take a node and absolutely isolate the virtual networks that are being supported," said Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corporation.

Routers that support partitioning are already common. Partitioning technology can create what looks like multiple devices to the network, but the control plane is not separated out on most routers. So problems on one logical router could spill over to another, degrading performance for both and making SLAs more difficult to achieve.

"Little bits and pieces are going to start to evolve from all of the vendors," Griliches said. "Juniper is first out with this, but I would expect to see others definitely following. It's taken two years for these providers to build out IPTV infrastructure," she said. "That's a long time. A unified compute platform will be a much better platform to deliver new services much faster."

Instead of installing all new network components, for example, a service provider could just create virtual ones without having to invest time and money in new hardware and installation.

As with any hardware-based initiative, the benefits are only as deep as the investment. Juniper is asking carriers to replace long-lasting core routers. Even a company that is willing to invest will see returns only on the percentage of the network equipped with devices like the TX Matrix Plus.

"You could see 20%, 30%, 40% savings if we assume that the TX Matrix Plus is the entire on-ramp," Nolle said. But the reality is that, most likely for years, the TX Matrix Plus will be deployed in only a small percentage of carrier networks. Thus, carriers will realize only a fraction of the potential operational savings it can offer. The rest of the non-virtualized network will still require the old-fashioned management.

"I'm not saying that's a bad thing," Nolle said, "but I'm saying that you can't assume that there's a given level of benefit for this."

Network virtualizations savings trickle out from the core

The savings are also confined, currently, to the very core parts of the network, where the TX Matrix Plus is slated to sit, although Luc Ceuppens, vice president of marketing for Juniper, said the virtualization features would trickle down over time.

"The [Juniper Control System] support [can] be extended to all edge products as well, so you can increase the granularity of the virtualization," Ceuppens said. "Right now, the virtualization is at the slot levels of our core routers. If you can push it through platforms like MX and M, you can drive it more to the edge and, in an ideal case, you could provision VPNs for customers through that."

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