Two of the great changes - software-defined networks and network functions virtualization (SDN and NFV) - will transform how networks operate and the skills MSOs must have on staff to keep things moving. Both concepts seek to leverage the power of virtualization to increase flexibility and ease the physical changes needed to change networks and service offerings. SDNs enable remote, real-time control of networks and network elements, while NFV enables real-time changes to the products and services that those networks carry.
Last week, the Linux Foundation unveiled the Open Platform for NFV Project (OPNFV). Essentially, the idea is to create a “reference platform” that will enable participants to avoid re-inventing the wheel for each open-source NFV project they undertake. Key underlying elements that can be used as building blocks for NFV projects are contributed to, and can be used, by members.
CableLabs is deeply involved in the Linux Foundation, and its members stand to gain by the effort. “The idea is to be able to offer new and differentiated services faster than today,” said Marc Cohn, the senior director of market development at the chairman of the Open Networking Foundation’s (ONF) Market Education Committee (MEC). “Cable operators stand to gain by being able to simplify CPE equipment at the customer site by virtualizing some of those capabilities and centralizing it in facilities that they can reduce cost and be deployed much more quickly.” Cohn also is the Senior Director of Market Development at Ciena Corporation(NASDAQ: CIEN).
CableLabs is a silver-level founding member of OPNFV. Chris Donley, the director of advanced networks and applications for CableLabs, offered a real-world example of how operators may use OPNFV: A core open source approach to a virtualized parental control function would be available. The individual operator or vendor would be able to focus on adding its own code above the core functionality in order to make it more valuable.
The broader question of how the cable industry is approaching NFV is a complicated one. On one hand, the industry doesn’t doubt the potential benefits of NFV. However, it is a vast change and one that upsets the strong vendor relationships that have developed over the decades. The reason is simple: The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for NFV and SDN is the ability to use commodity servers - not purpose-built devices - to deploy and operate new services and to save huge amounts of capital in not having to physically alter networks as new services emerge. All that work saved is great news for operators - but not necessarily for vendors.
Operators are being cautious, said Sergio Pellizzari, the founder and solutions architect for Nakina Systems. Pellizzari said he recently was on a panel with representatives of Time Warner Cable (NYSE:TWC). The operator, Pellizzari said, said NFV has been proven in the data center, but not yet in the network.
For the cable industry, a key element of the timing of the move to NFV is operational. The top line benefits are clear. What needs to be confronted are questions such as how to manage, monitor and measure NFV-based elements once they are in the network and how to integrate them with other functions, many of which will not be virtualized. “If there is a virtual firewall out there, [operators] still need to know what the performance is, what the alarm state is and whether or not it is properly configured.”
Adam Dunstan, the president and CEO of Active Broadband Networks, also focused on the importance in determining how NFV is likely to be behave in a network. Such operational issues are key to explore. Dunstan doesn’t advocate small-scale NFV projects - those don’t necessarily reveal issues that must be dealt with. Instead, he suggests large but non-core projects such as greenfield builds. The key is finding out what happens once projects are in the field and operating on a day-to-day basis. “More attention is required in the area of interrelating the functions,” he said.
One area in which NFV may get fast uptake is commercial services. Eitan Schwartz, the vice president of the service provider line of business for RAD Data Communications, said the desire to provide service level agreements (SLAs) over MSOs’ HFC plant is leading them to deploy purpose-built devices in customer premises. These devices provide the data necessary to monitor the SLAs.
The next step, he said, will be for the operators to virtualize those devices. This will enable them to not only monitor the SLAs but also take the key next step of changing services in a virtualized manner. “The next [step] is where the MSOs add virtualized network functions at the customer premises,” Schwartz said. He added that no operator with which he is familiar actually is planning such a move, but that the idea is generating interest.
SDNs and NFV are important steps forward for the cable industry. Such a fundamental advance doesn’t come easily, however, and must be deeply studied at the operational level.