By Ahmed Auda
It’s now well understood that the entire telecoms industry is technologically and operationally migrating to virtualised network functions utilising network functions virtualisation (NFV) as the architectural framework. NFV transformation is happening right now but full virtualisation of operators’ entire infrastructures remains at least several years away and we are entering a period in which virtualised and traditional infrastructure will exist side-by-side. This, in itself, presents significant challenges.
The hybrid era, during which operators will further operationalise their virtual infrastructure, requires a top down approach that sees full engagement with virtualisation from the chief executive down through the organisation, encompassing each of its functions. This vision should be augmented with a practical approach to ensure virtual and traditional systems operate effectively in parallel during the transition.
The enablers of this vision are management and network operations systems (MANO) backed by real-time analytics. The analytics are critical because, without real-time insight into what capacity and support infrastructure is available where and when, dynamic services such as those that will be delivered by 5G cannot be delivered with efficiency. With similar importance, the hand-off between statically provisioned, function-specific hardware and flexible, virtual infrastructure needs to be continually analysed to ensure service availability and quality; and secondly optimised resource utilisation.
Automated healing and real-time analytics are also required to provide the operator with the visibility it needs to run and control the network. The goal is to deploy systems that can ingest, correlate and calculate to ensure the right measurements are provided to orchestration. Automation is vital because the traditional approach of using a help desk to fix issues will not be fit for purpose in the world of real-time service delivery.
Typical examples of areas in which NFV is being deployed are virtualised customer premise equipment (vCPE), virtualised evolved packet core (vEPC), software defined wide area networks (SD-WAN) and virtualised IP multimedia subsystems (vIMS). These areas have been selected because they either offer rapid and clearly identifiable operational cost savings, or because they are new and require operators to invest to offer a service, such as VoLTE.
One operator that has used NFV to enable it to launch VoLTE services is Ooredoo Kuwait. The operator has deployed a single, unified cloud to support its NFV and IT applications. Demonstrating the collaborative nature of NFV deployments, Ooredoo Kuwait partnered with its VNF and cloud vendors to deploy an IMS VNF in a test environment within three months.Following successful testing, the VNF was seamlessly transferred to Ooredoo’s production IT environment enabling it to conduct its first VoLTE call.
Investments in NFV made today must integrate with future virtualisation efforts. It’s important that a modular, multi-vendor, multi-domain approach is facilitated because a key requirement is to avoid replication of traditional stove-piped siloes in the virtualised environment and becoming locked-in to a single vendor.
Virtualisation must enable NFV solutions from various vendors to interoperate smoothly and accommodate solutions from a different range of specialists from day one if all the benefits of virtualisation are to be accrued by operators. In addition, NFV requires a horizontally scalable platform that is open, extensible and can support multiple VNFs. The virtualisation market in the telecoms sector is ripe and the operationalisation is happening now.
NFV provides a crucial platform for continued innovation as operators continue to transition to being software defined. It doesn’t however guarantee success by itself. Achieving this requires an operator to take what they have learnt in their initial deployments and apply it to their business-wide strategies for complete virtualisation. Then, and only then will they be successfully able to react to new market opportunities and increase value in the eyes of the customer. Then and only then will they be able to compete and deliver the same quality, speed, scale and choice of competing digital disruptors.
About the author: Ahmed Auda is the managing director, Middle East and North Africa at VMware.