Making virtual strides

Geralyn Samia
Published on:

Network operators are working hard to drive the virtualisation of network functions. While much has already been achieved, challenges and hurdles remain before the fully cloud-ready network is achieved. We take stock of a work in progress

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The virtualisation of network functions has made great strides in the past year, moving far beyond the early hype and starting to become a reality in many networks. 

No doubt helped by the increasing maturity of the technology, we are now into the zone of multi-vendor NFV interoperability tests, significant field trials and actual NFV deployments in the network.

“There has been a lot of progress, albeit not as fast as some people had predicted,” reflects Alex Pavlovic, senior product marketing manager, IP and Optical Networks, with Nokia. “Virtualisation is happening - not just in the service provider and carrier space, but also in enterprises and web-scale companies. A good example in the telco cloud is virtualised Evolved Packet Core for LTE. All the RFPs out there are only asking for a cloud packet core solution.”

Pavlovic concedes that much work remains to be done, and that challenges remain that must be overcome: “There are a lot of moving parts here - from the underlying server infrastructures and architectures to the virtualised network functions themselves and all the way to management and orchestration,” he says. “Even the biggest service providers and Tier 1s are finding that this is a new game for them, and are coming to realise that they sometimes need to take a slower pace when putting everything together.”

Impressive strides in IP virtualisation 

Looking in particular at IP routing, Pavlovic says service providers have made impressive strides in IP virtualisation. “Virtualised router reflector, what we have in Telefonica Spain, has almost become a staple virtualised IP application. Other virtualised IP functions are being pulled in by NFV in data centres and in software-defined WANs. We see demand for virtualised provider edge for improved enterprise connectivity – another example we have in Telefonica Business Solutions. In mobile, we’ve noted that virtualised EPC and virtualised VoLTE or voice over Wi-Fi are stimulating demand for the virtualisated security gateways and Wi-Fi gateways. In wireline networks, applications like virtualised Broadband Network Gateway - as in our ongoing trial in China Unicom - are gaining traction.”

Continued rapid development looks likely, with analysts predicting that the value of the NFV market could be between $20bn and $30bn by 2020: “At the moment, we’re certainly seeing a very impressive demand with estimates for compound annual growth rate of in the region of 40% or 50%,” says Pavlovic. “This is a good indicator that the market for virtualised functions will be strong over the next several years. 

So what will power the next wave of virtualisation growth? “It’s the technology really,” he expects. “We’ll see new CPUs, more memory, better techniques giving us a much improved data plane performance which is very important for IP applications. There will have to be a lot of partnering between vendors to achieve this. There needs to be more cloud-native thinking and true cloud-centric architectures and designs. There will need to be more focus too on interoperability, and a lot more integration.” 

Pavlovic’s recommendation is that operators start to play more with virtualised technology, in order to learn more about it: “It’s a different world when it comes to benchmarking performance of this technology, so they need to be careful,” he warns. “Pick a single path to virtualise, if need be. A desire to do everything at once can overwhelm. With a single application they can better understand the requirements, and the business case.”

Explore and innovate

Nokia has been in the forefront of development of virtualised developments so far, and will continue to be a key partner going forwards as its service provider customers explore and innovate. For more than a decade, it has been the leader in service routing, defining a new paradigm of IP routing, centered around service providers’ needs. From its introduction, Nokia’s service router portfolio has expanded to cover enterprise, mobile, residential and video delivery applications, and important areas such as mobile core, and enterprise and carrier SDN.

“We consider ourselves to be ready across all virtualised functions areas,” concludes Pavlovic. “We’re leaders across mobile, fixed, IP and optical. We have a business group focused on applications and analytics. This gives us a unique perspective and a lot of great insights into how to deliver virtualised solutions for today and tomorrow.” 

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