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Telcos eye servers & software to meet networking needs

  • The Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) initiative aims to use common servers for networking functions
  • The initiative promises to be industry disruptive


"The sheer massive [server] volumes is generating an innovation dynamic that is far beyond what we would expect to see in networking"

Don Clarke, NFV



Telcos want to embrace the rapid developments in IT to benefit their networks and operations.

The Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) initiative, set up by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), has started work to use servers and virtualisation technology to replace the many specialist hardware boxes in their networks. Such boxes can be expensive to maintain, consume valuable floor space and power, and add to the operators' already complex operations support systems (OSS).

"Data centre technology has evolved to the point where the raw throughput of the compute resources is sufficient to do things in networking that previously could only be done with bespoke hardware and software," says Don Clarke, technical manager of the NFV industry specification group, and who is BT's head of network evolution innovation. "The data centre is commoditising server hardware, and enormous amounts of software innovation - in applications and operations - is being applied.” 


"Everything above Layer 2 is in the compute domain and can be put on industry-standard servers"

The operators have been exploring independently how IT technology can be applied to networking. Now they have joined forces via the NFV initiative.

"The most exciting thing about the technology is piggybacking on the innovation that is going on in the data centre," says Clarke. "The sheer massive volumes is generating an innovation dynamic that is far beyond what we would expect to see in networking."

Another key advantage is that once networks become software-based, enormous amounts of flexibility results when creating new services, bringing them to market quickly while also reducing costs.


The NFV initiative is being promoted as a complement to software-defined networking (SDN).


The complementary relationship between NFV and SDN. Source: NFV.
SDN is focussed on control mechanisms to reconfigure networks that separate the control plane and the data plane. The transport network can be seen as dumb pipes with the control mechanisms adding the intelligence.

“There are other areas of the network where there is intrinsic complexity of processing rather than raw throughput,” says Clarke.

These include firewalls, session border controllers, deep packet inspection boxes and gateways - all functions that can be ported onto servers. Indeed, once running as software on servers such networking functions can be virtualised.

"Everything above Layer 2 is in the compute domain and can be put on industry-standard servers,” says Clarke. This could even include core IP routers but clearly that is not the best use of general-purpose computing, and the initial focus will be equipment at the edge of the network.

Clarke describes how operators will virtualise network elements and interface them to their existing OSS systems. “We see SDN as a longer journey for us,” he says. “In the meantime we want to get the benefits of network virtualisation alongside existing networks and reusing our OSS where we can.”

NFV will first be applied to appliances that lend themselves to virtualisation and where the impact on the OSS will be minimal. Here the appliance will be loaded as software on a common server instead of current bespoke systems situated at the network's end points. “You [as an operator] can start to draw a list of target things as to what will be of most interest,” says Clarke.

Virtualised network appliances are not a new concept and examples are already available on the market. Vanu's software-based radio access network technology is one such example. “What has changed is the compute resources available in servers is now sufficient, and the volume of servers [made] is so massive compared to five years ago,” says Clarke

The NFV forum aims to create an industry-wide understanding as to what the challenges are while ensuring that there are common tools for operators that will also increase the total available market.

Clarke stresses that the physical shape of operators' networks - such as local exchange numbers - will not change greatly with the uptake of NFV. “But the kind of equipment in those locations will change, and that equipment will be server-based," says Clarke.


"One of the things the software world has shown us is that if you sit on your hands, a player comes out of nowhere and takes your business"


One issue for operators is their telecom-specific requirements. Equipment is typically hardened and has strict reliability requirements. In turn, operators' central offices are not as well air conditioned as data centres. This may require innovation around reliability and resilience in software such that should a server fail, the system adapts and the server workload is moved elsewhere. The faulty server can then be replaced by an engineer on a scheduled service visit rather than an emergency one.

"Once you get into the software world, all kinds of interesting things that enhance resilience and reliability become possible," says Clarke.

Industry disruption

The NFV initiative could prove disruptive for many telecom vendors.

"This is potentially massively disruptive," says Clarke. "But what is so positive about this is that it is new." Moreover, this is a development that operators are flagging to vendors as something that they want.

Clarke admits that many vendors have existing product lines that they will want to protect. But these vendors have unique telecom networking expertise which no IT start-up entering the field can match.

"It is all about timing," says Clarke. "When do they [telecom vendors] decisively move their product portfolio to a software version is an internal battle that is happening right now. Yes, it is disruptive, but only if they sit on their hands and do nothing and their competitors move first."

Clarke is optimistic about to the vendors' response to the initiative. "One of the things the software world has shown us is that if you sit on your hands, a player comes out of nowhere and takes your business," he says. 

Once operators deploy software-based network elements, they will be able to do new things with regard services. "Different kinds of service profiles, different kinds of capabilities and different billing arrangements become possible because it is software- not hardware-based."

Work status

The NFV initiative was unveiled late last year with the first meeting being held in January. The initiative includes operators such as AT&T, BT, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telecom Italia, Telefonica and Verizon as well as telecoms equipment vendors, IT vendors and technology providers.

One of the meeting's first tasks was to identify the issues to be addressed to enable the use of servers for telecom functions. Around 60 companies attended the meeting - including 20-odd operators - to create the organisational structure to address these issues.

Two experts groups - on security, and on performance and portability - were set up. “We see these issues as key for the four working groups,” says Clarke. These four working groups cover software architecture, infrastructure, reliability and resilience, and orchestration and management.

Work has started on the requirement specifications, with calls between the members taking place each day, says Clarke. The NFV work is expected to be completed by the end of 2014.


Further information:

White Paper: Network Functions Virtualisation: An Introduction, Benefits, Enablers, Challenges & Call for Action, click here

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