The release of Amsterdam last week, the first architecture from the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP) project, turned a spotlight back onto the subject of Network Function Virtualisation (NFV).

ONAP touted Amsterdam as the first step towards delivering a shared open-source architecture capable of being implemented on a global scale. In a statement announcing the move, Arpit Joshipura, GM of networking and orchestration at The Linux Foundation (one of ONAP’s founders), said Amsterdam “represents significant progress for both the ONAP community and the greater open source networking ecosystem”.

Amsterdam may be among the first community-led open source developments, but operators including AT&T, Telefonica, Verizon, Three UK and Altice have already begun virtualising network functions. Despite these moves, some question whether operators are clear about what they want from NFV and if they have been misled about NFV’s potential by vendors keen to boost their balance sheets.

Robin Kent, director of European operations at infrastructure equipment provider Adax, is one such sceptic: “There is no doubt that virtualisation has been over hyped, particularly by the vendors who want to try to sell ‘their’ solution,” Kent told Mobile World Live (MWL).

He explained the current NFV landscape is confused, with operators “asking for virtualisation without knowing exactly what they want or require”, or seeking benefits marketed by vendors “which perhaps aren’t event there.”

Recent research by consultancy Cartesian revealed many operators believe progress towards NFV is being hampered by a lack of technical maturity and the intricacy of operational changes required to virtualise networks. In a statement, the company said operators cited management of a multi-vendor environment as a factor in the complexity. Steve Upton, SVP of Networks and Operations Consulting at Cartesian, explained operators “face a mammoth task” implementing NFV and related software defined networking (SDN) changes.

Timo Jokiaho, head of the Telco Technology Office, EMEA, at open source software provider Red Hat (pictured, right), agreed the shift to NFV requires steep operational changes beyond just the technology. However, he noted those operators “that recognise the need to re-examine their internal processes, culture and organisational set-up” will be “best positioned to drive business value” from NFV. While Jokiaho conceded there remains a need for more education among operators, in particular around open source, he explained steady progress is being made “in terms of technological development and industry uptake.”

“This is an industry-level transition: it’s no small feat. On the technology side, NFV takes time because these systems are complex. On a business level, service providers need to be equipped with new expertise to build and manage these new systems, and to take into account the wider cultural and organisational impact of making such a fundamental transformation,” Jokiaho told MWL.

Tech transformation
Adax’s Kent explained almost every aspect of operators’ network functions can be virtualised: “the real question is how much should be virtualised?”

Elements including applications and databases are “currently more suited to being virtualised than, for example, core network nodes that tend to still be physical items”. However, there are also moves to virtualise core nodes including the Home Location Register (HLR) and Home Subscriber Server (HSS), Kent noted.

Jokiaho told MWL operators on the virtualisation journey are today focused on elements including mobile VPN, evolved packet core (EPC) and virtual customer premises equipment (vCPE).

VPN updates enable operators to “provide continuous service” delivering seamless switches between access technologies; EPC allows the creation of “an on-demand new mobile network in weeks instead of months”; while vCPE sees network services “delivered to enterprises using software rather than dedicated hardware”.

The so-called cloudification of networks is also now “moving towards radio base stations, which is a more challenging use case from a technical and commercial perspective,” Jokiaho added: “Some of the major telcos are committing to projects around this and we can expect it to grow in the next two to three years.”

Cloud RAN will be the “next step towards 5G”, he added, explaining the move will include mobile edge computing. The future of NFV “is adding automation, so that managing and scaling functions is automatically achieved, making full use of cloud computing.”

Operator view
Javier Gavilan, technology and planning global director at Telefonica’s Global CTIO division, agreed the shift to NFV required adaptation, but noted vendors have had to adjust just as much as operators. Telefonica is “working with traditional telco vendors” which are “adapting the cloud environment to the availability and operation requirements,” it specified.

Telefonica is currently expanding its portfolio of virtual network functions (VNFs), which Gavilan (pictured, right) said is helping to lower the entry barriers for new vendors because “a network function is only software” rather than hardware.

“It opens up, therefore, the range of possibilities and small companies very specialised in a network function can compete with the same weapons against big vendors,” Gavilan explained, adding Telefonica is now working with more than 30 vendors: “This new ecosystem is positive, with more offers we have more options to select the best solution for our customers and the best economic conditions.”

US operator AT&T refers to such new vendors as disruptors: the carrier worked with them alongside its existing vendors to develop network functions it deemed necessary for its new architecture, Amy Wheelus, VP of Cloud and Domain 2.0 Platform Integration at AT&T, explained.

“We were one of the first service providers to make the leap to NFV and, in doing so, we had to work with the vendors to mature the requirements and processes.”

The operators’ approaches belies the notion they were misled over the potential of NFV, or their goals.

“We created and published a set of VNF guidelines for the vendors to use”, Wheelus (pictured, left) said, adding: “The majority of VNFs are still very early on their maturity curve and have a long way to go to become fully cloud-native and take advantage of the economic benefits of the cloud.”

Wheelus argued the move to VNFs “is challenging to the traditional hardware-centric telecom vendors,” bringing about “not only a technology shift, but a culture and business model shift,” as operators ask vendors to disaggregate systems “and optimise their software to work on our cloud-based infrastructure,” rather than supply a complete solution.

Telefonica was one of the first “to recognise the potential of changing the network architecture through the incorporation of telco cloud technologies, general-purpose hardware and programmable network functions,” Gavilan argued. The operator believed combining those technologies “could radically transform both the cost basis and, more strategically, the capabilities and revenue generating potential of the network”.

The story at AT&T is similar: “Data traffic on our mobile network has grown more than 250,000 per cent since 2007 and the traditional hardware-based ecosystem could not keep up with that demand curve. We needed to borrow from our web-scale peers and move to a software-centric network approach,” Wheelus said.

AT&T is on track to meet a target of virtualising 55 per cent of its network functions by end-2017, Wheelus confirmed, noting the aim will take the operator to a tipping point in its longer-term plan to virtualise 75 per cent of functions by 2020.

Telefonica, meanwhile, is in the process of deploying NFV throughout its global footprint via its UNICA transformation programme. Gavilan said deployments in Germany, Peru, Argentina and Colombia are targeted for completion by end-2017, with the UK, Mexico and Chile to follow in early 2018: “[T]he goal is to extend the deployments to all of the operating businesses of Telefonica along 2018.”

Jokiaho said operators are “seeking counsel” on open source in terms of how to “tap into open innovation and community collaboration as part of their journey to cloud-native NFV.”

For Adax’s Kent, delivering the full potential of NFV for operators requires “more collaboration between vendors”.

Telefonica and AT&T are already actively participating in open standards work. Gavilan explained the company is gradually incorporating ETSI Open Source management and orchestration (MANO) to increase the automation capabilities of the platform: “This will also help us to be prepared for future support of 5G capabilities such as network slicing,” he said.

AT&T already contributed to community collaboration by combining its Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management and Policy (ECOMP) programme with The Linux Foundation’s Open-O project to create ONAP.

Wheelus said the project “has seen rapid adoption globally” since its formation in February, with “service providers representing more than 55 per cent of the world’s mobile subscribers” committing to join the community.

It is not only operators which are contributing to ONAP: the Amsterdam architecture was developed in conjunction with vendors.

Mazin Gilbert, ONAP Technical Steering Committee (TSC) chair and VP of Advanced Technology at AT&T Labs, said the community had “rallied together to produce a platform that transforms the service delivery lifecycle via closed-loop automation.”

The industry will now be keeping a close eye on whether Amsterdam and a subsequent ONAP architecture, Beijing, scheduled for release in mid-2018, deliver tangible results in terms of boosting NFV deployments and assuaging concerns over its potential.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.