Alcatel-Lucent announced it is in trials with some 20 service providers using its NFV portfolio, which includes virtual EPC (Evolved Packet Core), IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) and LTE RAN technology.

With proof of concept testing underway, Phil Tilley, Alcatel-Lucent’s marketing director of cloud strategy and solutions, told Mobile World Live he expected the first commercial service deployments – based on a “true NFV” environment – to launch within nine to 12 months.

NFV, or network functions virtualisation, holds out the promise of greater operator investment returns by implementing network functions in cloud-based software, which reduces operational costs.

The prospect of greater service innovation, say suppliers, is another attraction.

“NFV is more than just taking software and running it on a hypervisor on a virtual machine,” said Tilley. “It’s re-engineering the software so it can run on a number of different virtual machines. The software can then scale up as the virtual machines scale up. Only when you do that do you get the real benefits of NFV.”

As well as adapting software to run in a cloud virtualised environment, Alcatel-Lucent is tackling the nascent market through its CloudBand 2.0 NFV platform.

CloudBand, up and running for two years, is designed to orchestrate, automate and optimise virtual network functions across the service provider’s distributed network and data centres. Alcatel-Lucent said it is currently delivering on three CloudBand NFV customer contracts and 10 trials.

Alcatel-Lucent stressed that its NFV portfolio is aligned with ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute).

Tilley did not disclose which mobile operators are involved in its current crop of NFV trials. Alcatel-Lucent did say, however, it would be demonstrating a virtualised LTE RAN and EPC with China Mobile at next week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Commercial rollouts of SDN (software-defined networking), added Tilley, will likely run in parallel with NFV.

“When you look at the NFV platform, it’s not just about orchestrating software into servers,” he said. “These servers, the NFV platform, will be distributed across different metro areas and associated with that distribution will be network management. You need SDN to underpin that.”

Alcatel-Lucent’s SDN activities are run through its Nuage Networks venture. The supplier has so far signed four contracts to deliver its Nuage Networks SDN solution

NFV and SDN are a key part of Alcatel-Lucent’s Shift strategy, which is focused on IP networking and the cloud.

“Building on our strong IP foundation, we have pioneered an open SDN and NFV architecture that combines the best of IP with the best of IT, to create a truly carrier-grade cloud network solution,” claimed Marcus Weldon, Alcatel Lucent CTO in a statement.

“Our accelerated investments in virtualised telecom applications, our CloudBand 2.0 platform and our Nuage Networks SDN venture are clear proof points that we have all the elements to help operators create an open agile, efficient cloud environment at a speed that meets their individual needs.”

In recent press briefing, Weldon speculated how far IT vendors might compete with traditional telecoms suppliers as service providers look more to IT.

Tilley is convinced they won’t make much of an impact. “They really don’t understand the operational environment of a traditional telco,” he said. “Moreover, we have the relationship with operators.”