BACKGROUND IMAGE: iSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The Open Networking Summit 2014 this week could have been called "The NFV Show."
Telecom operators took the stage, one after the other, detailing plans to migrate away from "brittle" or inflexible legacy networks by implementing a combination of network functions virtualization (NFV) and SDN. Yet, details on the software or hardware tools needed to make this transition are still in short supply.
AT&T, NTT, Telefonica and Telecom Italia were among the operators that spoke at the Open Networking Summit. Each will use varying strategies to virtualize key network functions, placing them on commodity servers and then connecting them through a flexible SDN infrastructure that is all managed through a unified orchestration system.
The goal is to provision virtual services and applications in minutes instead of the months it takes on legacy networks. This will make it more cost-efficient to run and scale networks, since operators will be able to provision and de-provision bandwidth on demand based on actual user need. Also, this kind of granular network function control will eventually let operators offer optimized, customized content on demand. If customers can pay more, they can get better service. That means NFV and SDN could be linked to revenue generation in addition to network efficiency.
But that kind of total network transformation is a long way off.
"This is five to eight years out," said Forrester Research principal analyst Andre Kindness. Operators will face challenges in finding tools that let them equally manage virtual and physical resources through a common interface, he said.
Telecom operators have extremely complex Operation Support Systems and Business Support Systems (OSS/BSS) that manage every function, from business issues like billing, to performance elements, such as quality of service, and performance of logical and physical resources. As networks have become more complex and multi-layered, OSS/BSS has become complicated and even behemoth.
"OSS/BSS is their biggest challenge. These systems will have to tie into this [new] orchestration infrastructure," said IDC research manager Nav Chander. "They will [eventually have to] get rid of legacy OSS and consolidate networks" to make them programmable enough to make dynamic changes.
Operators can and will move incrementally to NFV, starting with specific groups of network features and functions. Mobile operators are already virtualizing their Evolved Packet Core (EPC), the technology that handles subscriber management and authorization. Cisco Chief CTO and Chief Architect David Ward explained that EPC functions are a relatively clean and straightforward lift from the physical appliance into a virtual instance. Cisco now offers virtualized EPC technology.
Other operators are already beginning to dynamically provision virtual firewalls, load balancing and WAN optimization. "The real opportunity is customer-facing services. We can each have our own virtual service wherever we go," Chander said.
But to go deep enough to provision bandwidth on demand, with self-service network features and optimized content, operators are seeking new ideas and tools to scale SDN (or some other form of programmability) across the WAN. They're looking for ideas on how to extend orchestration to each layer of their network and controllers with programmability that can reach down into the optical transport layer. The challenges are many.
AT&T will take on radical shift
AT&T Senior Executive Vice President of Networks John Donovan delivered a concise keynote message: AT&T is embarking on radical change in the form of SDN and NFV.
The first step will be to dump purpose-built equipment designed for specific sets of features. Instead, AT&T will virtualize network functions that can be "instantiated and updated from anywhere and more quickly than they are today," Donovan said. Then, AT&T will build programmable networks that "dynamically reroute traffic, add capacity, and introduce new features through programmable, policy-based controllers." Along the way, AT&T will provide open application programming interfaces, so customers and partners can build their own apps into the network.
But Donovan was the first to admit the technology is not in place for this transformation, so AT&T will look beyond only incumbent vendors, like Cisco and Juniper, in the search for innovative tools. The company has met with more than 100 vendors -- both startup and incumbent -- as well as researchers in its quest.
"This allows for non-traditional network players, smaller entrepreneurial players, universities and others to participate in our new ecosystem in addition to the existing players," he said.
AT&T is already focusing on virtualizing its EPC and IP multimedia subsystem. Donovan identified hardware vendors Ericsson and Metaswitch as two established suppliers that are on board with AT&T's plans. He also identified two smaller vendors, Tail-f Systems and Affirmed Networks. Tail-f provides network control software that can manage network gear from multiple vendors by interfacing with their existing control planes. Affirmed Networks develops technology that virtualizes EPC.
NTT's toe is in the NFV and SDN pool, but the operator is ready to dive in
NTT first took on network virtualization and SDN in 2012 with its Enterprise Cloud service. The operator implemented OpenFlow SDN both inside the cloud data center and in the intra-data center network, bypassing manual configuration of routers and switches, and enabling automated provisioning of cloud resources.
Now, the company is ready to take SDN and NFV further, and will start by working toward self-service, automated VPN provisioning.
"We automated configurations of provisioning within the data center, but existing VPN service is still done by manual operations. What we will focus on next is the interconnection portion between the data center and the VPN network," said Yukio Ito, NTT senior vice president. "Both networks have edge devices, and we need a system to configure both devices simultaneously."
NTT is working with technology that will let users configure their network by entering the information into a portal, which then speaks to a controller that turns on the VPN. That information is also advertised to an edge router for distribution in the VPN network, Ito explained.
Network functions virtualization continues to grow
New vendor ecosystems emerge
What are the business benefits of SDN and NFV?
Net neutrality is key to SDN and NFV
Service chain provisioning made easier by NFV
Next up, NTT will turn its vision to virtualizing network functions, such as WAN accelerators and firewalls, so customers no longer have to build them on-premises, Ito said. These services will be connected through an "SDN common framework" and controlled through an orchestrator.
Finally, NTT will go deeper with SDN and NFV beyond Layer 2/3 and into the optical and transport network, Ito said. But he also made clear that this is a deeper challenge.
"To apply SDN to the whole network, we need to think about how we apply SDN to wide area network," Ito said. This will require multilayer optimization and multi-grade redundancy, as well as a migration of all management techniques.
NTT has started by building overlay networks and will move slowly to full SDN. In the meantime, NTT can simplify the network by using virtual "network slices" to connect NFVs.
Ciena demands operators step up to NFV and SDN, but it doesn't offer total solution
Francois Locoh-Donou, senior vice president of Ciena Corp.'s global products group, scolded operators for not moving quickly enough into programmability. Then he outlined Ciena's NFV and SDN strategy -- which is also largely still in development.
"At Mobile World Congress, there were 70,000 of us that descended on that city. Prices at hotels went through the roof, prices of car rentals were three times higher, flights were more expensive … but what about the price of network service? No change," Locoh-Donou said. "Why is it that when there is a golden opportunity for network operators to optimize their infrastructure, they're not able to do so?"
Ciena is offering a combination of technology that lets operators gain a global view of the network with the ability to collect network usage data in real time. Then, operators can use this information for flexible provisioning and resource management. "If we can define network behaviors, we gain a lot of flexibility; we can evolve services faster," he said.
Ciena will use OpenDaylight (ODL) controllers that direct flows among "contention-less optical switches that allow wavelengths to move around the network." The use of ODL controllers will also mean operators can build their own applications as needed.