07 March 2017
| James Pearce
Virtualisation is the buzzword across the wholesale industry, whether it be SDN or NFV. James Pearce asks if it is virtual insanity, or is it finally becoming a reality?
Virtualisation in the IT industry has been around for years,
with the likes of VMware dominating the virtualised machines
On the network-side, however, the idea of developing a
virtual network, one that is based on software overlaying
existing infrastructure, has seemed like a literal pipe-dream
until the last few years.
Growing demands for data services has meant wholesale
carriers need not just bigger, faster networks, but also to
find a way of dealing with the flexibility needed in an
on-demand world. Virtualising a network, by adding a software
layer on top of it, offers this and more, according to Colt
Colt has long been a proponent of virtualisation, with CEO
Carl Grivner once telling Capacity he "loves" Software
Defined Networks (SDN). Last year, at Capacity Europe,
the London-based carrier announced a proof-of-concept
partnership with AT&T that promised to demonstrate the
benefits of virtualisation.Mirko Voltolini, VP of network
technology at Colt, tells Capacity: "The opportunity of
improving the service delivery process will be very appealing
to wholesale, and that’s why we are working with
AT&T. Hooking up our well-respected networks to trade
bandwidth without any human intervention at all, will give both
of our companies and give us a tremendous speed of
"We already buy and sell a lot to AT&T – they
are a big partner of ours – but we are looking at
taking what we’re doing there beyond AT&T and
launching with other partners. We will expand and have had
conversations with a number of partners, but not as a proof of
concept, but with the aim of creating this capability between
Colt has been looking at how to virtualise parts its network
since 2012, developing software-defined wide area networks
(SD-WAN), SDN and network function virtualisation (NFV). It
isn’t the only carrier introducing virtualisation
on its network, however.
In January, Orange announced plans to add virtualised
services on its network in Poland as part of an agreement with
Amdocs. This will then be rolled out across its 28-country wide
Orange Polska VP of strategy and transformation Piotr
Muszyński called virtualisation of networks "inevitable"
when the French operator announced the trial of the Enhanced
Control, Orchestration, Management and Policy (ECOMP) service,
an open-source platform being spearheaded by AT&T.
The US operator has already pledged to release ECOMP as an
open-source platform and is heavily investing in
virtualisation. On top of its partnership with Colt, it has
unveiled plans to virtualise and control over 75% of its
network using this new software-defined architecture to meet
the growing demands of data and video-hungry users.
AT&T chief financial officer John Stephens told analysts
during its fourth quarter call that 34% of the AT&T network
was virtualised by the end of last year, a significant increase
from the end of 2015 when only 5.7% was virtualised.
"We see continued progress on our network virtualisation and
our software defined network-enabled services," Stephens said.
"Our virtualization plan is ahead of schedule with 34% of our
network virtualized at the end of the year and net NetBond
continues to be well-received with 19 of the leading cloud
service providers now making it available."
Colt’s Voltolini claims that the industry is
just seeing the start of wider adoption, predicting that the
tipping point for virtualisation will come in either this year
"We are now at the beginning, and we will continue to
progress beyond the early adopters," he adds.
"We’re definitely on the verge of widespread
adoption, and either this year or next year will tip over to
the maturity of the carriers’ adoption this
technology in one form or another.
"We will see the usage expand this year – last year
was below 10%, but I’d expect this year to reach
above 30% of adoption."
Expansion of connectivity
Netscout chief solutions architect Vikram Saksena tells
Capacity that a software environment for networks
makes the provisioning of services much simpler, allowing
increased agility for carriers.
"In a software environment upgrading services is a much
easier process because you have a lot of automation around how
services get provisioned. Orchestration technologies are coming
along rapidly to automate a lot of functions around new
services upgrades. That means a software world is a lot easier
to upgrade than in a traditional hardware world. That is one of
the main reasons carriers are looking to move towards
Saksena claims the wholesale industry is only just beginning
to realise the overall benefits of virtualising their networks,
after numerous proofs of concept (POCs) have been carried out,
testing the services on sandbox use cases.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is one example he cites,
claiming that it makes sense for carriers and operators to
trial virtualisation on IoT networks because they often
function distinctly from traditional mobile connectivity.
Given the scale in which IoT is predicted to hit in the next
few years, with analysts and industry bodies predicting
anywhere up to 50 billion connected devices in operation by
2025, IoT needs the flexibility and swift deployment only
available on a virtualised network.
"What has happened over the last few years is
we’ve moved from just a handful of wholesale
carriers from testing the technology to many more getting
involved, because they are beginning to see the business case
for SDN and NFV," Saksena adds. "But there are still some
challenges around deployment.
"How do you automate and deploy, so that it gives you the
full benefit of agility and elasticity that is possible with
these technologies. The industry is still in a mode of doing
POCs on a larger set of applications, but there are some
pockets of sandbox deployments across isolated parts of the
network and services.
"IoT is a good example as it doesn’t intersect
with the mainstream consumer mobile services. It is relatively
new and doesn’t have much traffic, so it offers a
good testbed for virtualisation."
The hotbed of virtualisation
The growing demand for virtualisation has also seen most
vendors developing a virtualisation product, while it has also
seen other software companies dip their toes into the network
Dell-owned software giant VMware is best known for its
virtual machines – a way of offering a connection to a
desktop remotely using the cloud – but it has now
developed a virtualisation product for all wide area
It is based on the same platform that the US company uses
for its virtual machines, and already has 45 telcos in
production on the platform, including Ooredoo. It runs across
75 operators globally, with over 200,00 mobile subscribers
running on its infrastructure today, according to Honore
Labourdette, VP, VMware.
"What the industry is trying to accomplish is to move away
from the rigid silos of vertical hardware stacks for each
service because it is more costly, and it inhibits their
ability to be competitive in the marketplace. It also
accelerates the time to market for new and innovative services.
We wanted to ensure our solution can enable that. "That
willingness to innovate means carriers are looking beyond the
incumbents and traditional network service providers to see
what is available in this space."
A lot of the innovation on wholesale is currently being seen
on the session border controller (SBC), according to Netscout,
with voice services in need of shaking up as revenues fall.
"In wholesale, a lot of the virtualisation is coming on the
SBC. For voice services that part of the network is being
virtualised which allow the carriers to manage capacity more
elastically and add capacity where needed. It is much more
flexible to add software capacity to an SBC than it is using
"Wholesale carriers offering hosting services will also
benefit by virtualising this environment for other carriers and
For Colt, one of the key components that makes up its
virtualisation strategy, and one part that is already seeing a
lot of traction, is the ability to buy connectivity, voice and
Rather than bulk-buying a set amount of capacity as has been
the traditional way of the wholesale industry, virtualising a
network enables carriers to offer bandwidth when needed,
allowing customers to increase, reduce or change the amount
being used without any human interaction. This automation and
the speed and flexibility it offers is a key USP, according to
Colt. "We’ve had some good traction for on-demand
services, but it is still at a very early stage. The market
needs to be educated. The art of the possible is not always
matching what customers are used to in terms of consumption
models. Purchasing capability traditionally requires customers
to make a financial commitment, but enabling them to purchase
services and bandwidth online doesn’t fit with the
traditional approval cycle. Some customers do not care about
that, but others do."