End lock-in by going virtual
Nothing to do with Covid, but virtualisation of telecoms networks means that telcos are no longer locked in to a few hardware vendors. Alan Burkitt-Gray looks at the march of SDN and NFV
The move to software defined networks (SDNs) and network functions virtualisation (NFV) is consuming the industry’s attention. Through a host of organisations the industry is steadily moving to a virtualised world. Rightly, but confusingly, these two abbreviations are usually paired; and NFV is often coupled with virtualised network functions (VNFs), just to add to the overall confusion.
One of the major organisations leading the move is the TM Forum, which runs the Open Digital Architecture project, supported by a wide range of companies, such as recent arrivals Ericsson, Huawei, NTT and Salesforce.
The decisions of those four — along with those of eight smaller companies — takes the number of companies publicly committed to creating a market for standardised and interoperable software components to 42.
Salesforce’s VP John Carney, says: “Only through collaboration can the industry attain the knowledge and agree on common standards and assets such as Open APIs required to kindle a software marketplace.”
He adds: “We believe the shift to standardised, components-based, cloud native models will reduce barriers and make it easier to generate value around 5G.”
The TM Forum’s CEO, Nik Willetts, says: “Adding these new companies alongside our existing committed members demonstrates that the whole industry is now on board with the development of standardised plug-and-play components, data models and open APIs. Now we must stay focused to turn the commitments into reality.”
The TM Forum’s move also highlights a unanimity among the industry — with Chinese and US operators and vendors working together to achieve a common aim with companies from other parts of the world.
Huawei’s chief digital transformation officer, Che Haiping, says: “A rapid and radical shift to an open, modern, service-based architecture that enables new business models and operational models and uses the open digital architecture and open APIs as guidelines is critical for digital transformation of the telco industry.”
His words are echoed by Jan Karlsson, senior vice president and head of the digital services business area in Ericsson: “We are pleased to be adding our name to the list of supporters of the Forum’s manifesto and look forward to collaborating and defining future standards.”
The TM Forum says its open digital architecture (ODA) “is a blueprint for modular, cloud-based, open digital platforms that can be orchestrated using AI [artificial intelligence]”.
It noted that “ODA replaces traditional operational and business support systems (OSS/BSS) with a new approach to building software for the telecoms industry, opening a market for standardised, cloud-native software components, and enabling communication service providers and suppliers to invest in IT for new and differentiated services instead of maintenance and integration”.
Much of the difficult early work took place under the aegis of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), based in southern France. Seven of the world’s leading telecoms network operators set up the long-windedly named Industry Specification Group for Network Functions Virtualisation (ISG NFV) in November 2012.
Why? As ETSI says, “modern telecoms networks contain an ever-increasing variety of proprietary hardware. The launch of new services often demands network reconfiguration and on-site installation of new equipment which in turn requires additional floor space, power, and trained maintenance staff.”
It adds: “In a digital world, the innovation cycles accelerate and require greater flexibility and dynamism than hardware-based appliances allow. A hard-wired network with single-function boxes is tedious to maintain, slow to evolve, and prevents service providers from offering dynamic services.”
The group ran though pre-standardisation studies to detailed specifications, and then proofs of concept and a series of interoperability events. It was a community-driven effort, with the aim of liberating telecoms networks from proprietary “standards” that are not real standards. That locks in operators to particular vendors’ hardware or software.
ETSI notes “SDN and NFV are complementary but increasingly co-dependent”, and explains: “While the former provides the means to dynamically control the network and the provisioning of networks as a service, the latter offers capability to manage and orchestrate the virtualisation of resources for the provisioning of network functions and their composition into higher-layer network services.”
From data centres to telecoms
I spoke to George Glass (pictured), who has seen this process evolve. He used to be the chief systems architect at BT, but has been the TM Forum’s CTO since April 2020. “We have taken all the thinking from the IT space and the systems space to apply to the network,” he says. “Business capabilities are enabled by virtualisation and softwarisation. Virtualisation started in data centres.”
The old way of doing things, he says, was to develop applications in bespoke hardware. “You needed to overprovision, and we bought 10 times as much.” At any time the average utilisation was just 17%.
The change started in around 2008-09, says Glass. “At that stage virtualisation was still a concept.” Since then, he says, efficiency has increased.
“Once you’ve virtualised, you can be clever. You can put three or four applications [on the system], as long as you don’t get to around 80% utilisation, you’re OK.” This works because “everything has peaks and troughs”, and normally the peaks don’t clash.
“We’re now running at 85-90% efficiency,” says Glass. That means costs are reduced, you’re using fewer resources — and you can use this as an opportunity to modernise the hardware, he notes. “You have better power consumption too.”
Telecoms companies were building their own virtualised infrastructure, he recalls, and hardware manufacturers and the hyperscalers were involved too. Companies such as Google and Microsoft were spending billions of dollars a year each on cloud infrastructure. “What telco can keep up?” he asks. “It’s all of that order of magnitude.”
The telecoms industry started to see network functions being virtualised, including such items as firewalls. “The argument had been that IT equipment wasn’t as resilient as telecoms,” says Glass. “But look at hypercloud services. How often have you gone to the Google home page and found it’s not there?”
Availability is “enormous”, he says, “if I can virtualise infrastructure, delivered on very cheap hardware”.
The aim is a software-defined network with virtualised functions on standard infrastructure. “In the past, for updates, you had to change a physical piece of kit. Now it’s the software.”
All in the software
The key to interoperability is the application programming interfaces (APIs). “It means I don’t care how Juniper or Cisco or Huawei actually built their kit.” If they use a standard set of APIs, it should all work together. “I can start to see how SDNs and NFV can work if we have interfaces in an industry standard manner.”
Vendors are fighting back, says Glass. “They’re saying you need to build a big X network, where X equals us.” But that’s wrong. “You need not be tied to a particular vendor. You need a standard interface on a virtualised infrastructure.”
And, then, he adds: “Anyone can build it. It’s just a piece of software.” Oh, “just” is such a powerful word. Once there were no routers available in software, he points out. “Routers are at the core of the network. Previously people thought that software was not reliable enough.” But Glass points to the Japanese mobile operator Rakuten, “which has gone completely cloud-native with network and IT”.
Other benefits are emerging from this SDN/NFV transformation, he adds.
“You can move the application to where the demand is. I want network capacity to be close to the consumer for latency and performance reasons. You get the functionality right beside the point of us.”
Virtualisation “opens up an opportunity for transformation”, says Glass. “It’s complex, but you hide the complexity.” He compares the wristwatch. The analogue wristwatch, that is. “It’s complex inside, but gives you a very, very simple way to tell the time — with just three hands on the watch face.”
What’s driving this? Cost, says Glass. Compare a traditional — if that’s the right word — router built in hardware and costing up to millions. In software that can cost $5,000, he suggests.
But there are other long-term benefits, he suggests. “What’s missing in telcos is opportunity for innovation,” he says. “Too much of the industry is controlled by 10 large organisations. You have to build a cost model that is one tenth of today’s level.” Cheaper, and better, seem a good combination.