Telco’s road to Cloud nine

Network function virtualisation (NFV) and software-defined networks (SDN) have become hot topics in the telecommunications industry but what does this mean to communication service providers?

Looking purely to the definition, NFV is a new network architectural approach proposed and fostered by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), which describes the virtualisation of entire classes of network nodes, defining basic functional block and virtual network functions, which can be then chained together to provide complex communication services.

NFV-MANO architectural framework (source: ETSI NFV MANO, Report on Architectural Options)

On the other hand, SDN is a ‘new’ approach to design and operate a telecommunication network, aiming to simplify the traditional way in which IP and Ethernet networks are operated, by evolving from an inherently distributed control logic, to a centralised one. A key aspect is the decoupling between the network control plane and user plane, removing the former from the network devices and centralising it, while network devices retain forwarding functions and can be properly programmed from a central network controller, using common languages and APIs.

SDN reference architecture (source: Open Networking Foundation)

Why? What does NFV/SDN bring to the business?

1. Agility/Flexibility/Scale. As load increases, virtual environments enable both horizontal and vertical scaling, in a simple and managed way. Virtually, this can be done infinitely. Cloud-based services are ideal for businesses with growing or fluctuating demands.

2. Resilience. In the telecom’s world, up-time is business critical hence the standard is five-nines (99.999 percent up-time). Cloud-native applications can run on servers, which aren’t five-nines themselves but they are engineered to build resilience by hosting VNFs in different data centres with data replication.

3. Modularity & Management. In this ‘new’ world, applications have to work “in an API model”, becoming a module in a virtual framework. This improvements management efficiency and makes it simpler and easier to keep the platform updated with regular software updates — including security updates.

4. Performance. Today’s advanced virtualisation techniques already enable better pure performance than native computing for cloud-native applications. Additionally, a flexible resource allocation naturally drives improved efficiency and performance.

5. Upfront capital-expenditure. Cloud computing cuts out the high cost of hardware by moving into a simpler pay as you grow model. This fosters the business efficiency by reducing the up-front investment and throttle expenditure alongside revenue. This lower entry cost, also promotes innovation as it minimises risk and failure impact.

Challenges

Within the telecommunication industry, product development has traditionally followed rigorous standards for stability, protocol adherence and quality, inevitably leading to long product cycles, a slow pace of development and reliance on proprietary or specialist hardware. The challenge now relies on evolving these legacy systems, many times replicated across different services and solutions, to this new architecture paradigm while competing with communication services from fast-moving organisations operating over the public Internet which disrupted the status quo (e.g. Skype/Skype for Business, Google Talk…).

For incumbent service providers, dealing with brownfield networks is one of the most obvious problems: they can’t just unplug the networks that are still serving customers, and those networks don’t easily “cloudify.”.

Way forward

Looking to the future, service providers need to implement a transformation process to move into the Cloud, with an agile strategy to gradually but steadily evolve current systems and solutions by (1) embedding support for virtualised environments at the core of each software block, detaching it from specialised hardware, (2) adding support for service orchestration in each of the components and (3) enable solutions to achieve elastic scaling.

Proposed roadmap for legacy systems transformation into Cloud-ready solutions

Over the last years, Internet players have built successful solutions for the Cloud, designed to scale efficiently, many times without the pressure of a paying (and demanding) customer. Now, service providers need to quickly evolve, build on emergent new network architecture paradigm, combining different technological capabilities applied to network functions, network design, service platforms & data centres.

Telco over Cloud foresees the creation of a common virtualised infrastructure to deploy and operate different network applications, provided by multiple network vendors. Each application will become a virtual application performing a particular function, leveraging all the capabilities brought by the cloud computing, in terms of elasticity, high availability and manageability. This will foster the competition among Telco vendors and enable new players to enter in the telecommunications market.

However, as Martin Gueddes well wrote, for communication service providers, “Cloud computing is slowly maturing, but cloud communications is in its infancy still.

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