Virtual will become real in 2017

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 market. 

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 Technology Services. 

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 execution.

"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 providers."

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 footprint.

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 or next.

"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 virtualisation."

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 sector.

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 networks.

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 hardware.

"Wholesale carriers offering hosting services will also benefit by virtualising this environment for other carriers and large customers."

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 data, on-demand.

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." 

Topics: Capacity Media, Capacity Magazine, Virtualisation, virtual network, wholesale industry