Full Speed Ahead to NFV and SDNs

Jan. 22, 2014
Cable operators are called upon today to do a far greater number of things than they did in the p...
Cable operators are called upon today to do a far greater number of things than they did in the past. The emergence of TV Everywhere - which will hit high gear in 2014 - adds another major offering with which MSOs must deal. Layered on top of the new services is the need to provide increased functionality within each: For instance, video demands robust quality of service (QoS), and commercial services demand heightened security and the ability to add and subtract bandwidth on a fluid basis.

Such highly differentiated needs call for a distribution approach that is equally flexible. To a great extent, the introduction of software-defined networks (SDNs) is answering the call. More recently, what can be characterized as its cousin - network functions virtualization (NFV) - is gaining attention.

As often is the case, at the very highest perspective the concepts are not hard to understand. They both are based on virtualization, which in turn rests on the potent idea that doing the heavy lifting in software allows processing to be moved easily between hardware devices, which are de-emphasized.

Think of a sci-fi movie in which a person's consciousness easily moves between physical bodies. Once the mad scientist figures out how to do that, the bodies become a commodity. Telecommunications researchers, by and large, aren't mad scientists, but they have cooked up roughly the same paradigm. In SDNs, the key is to disentangle the control functions (such as routing tables) and functions that physically manipulate the data flow. NFV dives down even further and virtualizes what is done with the data.

For instance, operators would like to be able to a couple of things in preparation for a Saturday night mega-fight: More capacity for the fight - perhaps "borrowing" some bandwidth from the commercial services area (which are not running full tilt on the weekend) and the proper level of QoS, conditional access and authentication and other functions. The bandwidth would be delegated by SDN and the QoS, conditional access and other assets by NFV.

The two technologies often are grouped together but can work independently. However, the biggest gains are made when both are in place and controlled by an orchestration layer. The orchestration layer determines what assets are available in the network and determines how to apply them to the challenge at hand. In the above example, for instance, the orchestration layer would determine how much bandwidth is necessary for the fight and the levels of QoS and other attributes that also must be brought to bear. It would help build virtual connections to bring it in.

The result is efficiency: "With a global view of request, more intelligent decisions can be made about how to deploy all those resources to service demands," said Mitch Auster, the senior director of market development for Ciena (NASDAQ:CIEN). "It can precisely say where the best services are [and determine how to import them]. There is no need to over-provision."

Another impact of the emergence of NFV and SDN is an upsetting of the traditional vendor/operator relationship. Concentration of intelligence in data centers and other central points and the requirement that functionality be portable makes interoperability a prerequisite and gives the service providers control of their product roadmaps. "[Operators] get free of dependency [on specific vendors]," said Yuri Gittik, RAD's head of strategic marketing.

Last week, RAD and Nakina Systems announced an NFV rollout for an as-yet unnamed North American cable operator. Segio Pellizzari,  Nakina's co-founder and solutions architect, said the first use of the technology was in the operator's commercial services area. Other operators are asking about the technology, he said. Neela Jacques, the executive director of the OpenDaylight Foundation, an open source consortium working to perfect and advanced SDNs and NFV, suggests that MSOs will be a big player. "I absolutely see every cable operator looking at NFV and testing it," he said.

Observers say the telephone industry, which has faced the massive transition from 3G to 4G/LTE, is ahead on the development of SDN and NFV. To date, only data is trafficked over LTE networks. They fall back to 3G for voice calls. The next step is implementing voice over LTE (VoLTE).

The rollout of VoLTE is occurring in concert with the switch the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS). This is a next-generation architecture in which all IP-based data - whether carried on wires or wirelessly - is treated in the same manner. To the network, there no longer is a difference between wired and wireless networks. In addition to stitching together wired and wireless networks, IMS treats all applications - from voice, video and data - as modular applications that can be added and deleted from the network easily. SDNs and NFV fit perfectly into such an environment.

The cable industry is close behind. "From a business perspective, there is more and more pressure for cable operators to compete in ... voice, data and video," said Jim Hudmon, the director of cloud and technology services for Nexius. "Acquiring services and ramping them up will rely on NFV to come to market and control their networks. NFV will give them a more efficient and cost-effective solution to bring products to market."

SDN and NFV offer potential advantages far more immediate and tangible than more efficient networks, said Kirk George, Ineoquest's director of marketing. He said real world gains can be realized in footprint reduction, more efficient manpower deployments and greater speed to market.

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor of Broadband Technology Report. Contact him at [email protected].