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Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) and Software Defined Networking (SDN) were hot topics at Mobile World Congress in 2013. Consider that a mere dress rehearsal. While attendees at the 2014 event later this month might not see these emerging architectures overtly hyped in the conference program, rest assured that NFV and SDN will be part of many speeches, sessions and sales meetings. The elevated buzz will quickly spread to the rest of the industry as attendees return home.
How could these topics not be part of sessions like: “Mobile Operator Strategies,” “Creating the Next Access Networks,” or “Optimizing User Experience with Intelligent Network Assets?” No doubt, by the close of the telecom industry’s largest annual event, nobody will be asking, “What is NFV?” Networking professionals will be asking lots of questions, but they will be moving beyond definitional questions to more practical ones about where to start and how. They will be asking about the risks, about the maturity of available technology and about standards. They will be looking around for examples of NFV in action, and for signs of carrier-grade SDN.
At this stage, they will be hard pressed to find them. But there are signs. Communications service providers (CSPs) and their suppliers of network and software infrastructure solutions are progressing through the early stages of planning and development of virtual networks together.2 Together, they are also working their ways through various proof-of-concept trials, driven both independently and as part of sponsoring organizations such as the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), the OpenDaylight Project, the Open Networking Foundation, the Open Data Center Alliance and others. Product roadmaps are being defined. Implementation options are being discussed. Published here and there, are snippets of news about real-world deployments.
These are early-stage deployments to be sure, which may not resemble the fully-realized NFV and SDN deployments, but such is the nature of new technology implementation. What the industry needs to be on the lookout for are those meaningful, early-stage initiatives that call to mind astronaut Neil Armstrong’s reference to one small step and what it means for the future of networking.
Small steps are essential to the proper roll out of any new architecture. They are little proof points that people are on the right track. They may begin with something like a transport technology reaching incrementally faster speeds until a new application can take advantage, or with slightly more automated routing, or better error detection. These resulting latency improvements will make a new service possible. Once services are proven in the network, large-scale change follows. No new technology gets deployed without a field trial—at least not yet—but that rule may change when a virtual network can be spun up on demand to test new features and applications. So, for now, we still start small.
Another rule, perhaps of thumb, is that when transformation is undertaken, it almost always starts with hardware. Networking gear and the transport network it runs on have always been the leading man and leading lady of communications infrastructure. And most of the time they have deserved the role. However, as the networking business becomes more software driven, operations and monetization (O&M—also currently known as OSS BSS) often become scene stealers that crank the turnstiles, and transform technology into good business.
As essential as O&M are, however, they have yet to lead a major transformation. Their subservient roles of the past are unlikely to change, even in the new software-centric architectures of NFV and SDN, which require significant change to the standard hardware model. But, as this report will show, that is no excuse for waiting on network infrastructure evolution before deploying O&M solutions that can support the new network and the business, when they are ready.
The deployment featured in this SPIE takes such an approach for the operations half of support software. It tells of a tiny implementation—a small step with outsized importance because it is real. This virtual network implementation provides both a beneficial process improvement for the CSP customer, and a useful proof-point for how to start getting from here to there—from the traditional, proprietary, hardware-based, somewhat inflexible network of today to the new malleable and responsive virtual network. The virtual network implementation discussed in this report serves as a reminder that CSPs do not need to wait on network element providers to virtualize their products. Nor must CSPs wait for SDN Controllers, with commonly defined interfaces for controlling the hardware within a virtual network architecture, to come to market. CSPs can deploy today the O&M capabilities adequate for meeting the business and operations needs of the virtual network future.
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