Service providers are at the precipice of a transformation that will remake their industry and marketplace. Older technologies that once could be relied on for life cycles measured in decades are being replaced by new, software-based technologies that are more flexible, leverage technology advances faster, and update within hours. And on the consumption side, changing customer behaviors and preferences are disrupting the business model the telecom industry has relied on since its infancy. As we enter 2017, service providers are preparing for a transformation characterized by “a great opportunity for growth, consumer freedom, and breakthrough technology that enables new revenue sources,” says VMware’s new vice president and CTO for NFV, Constantine Polychronopoulos.
Opportunity and Risk
Over the last decade, the rise of mega-scale cloud or service and content providers, such as Amazon and Google, has shaken the very foundations of the telecom industry. These new internet-based companies are able to leverage massive amounts of actionable data, innovate quicker, and most importantly, deliver new customer services faster. “Over-the-top” (OTT) and premium content providers, such as YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu—which use but don’t build, own, and manage the telco service provider infrastructure—have also played a role in pushing telcos to rethink both the way they evolve their network infrastructure to address data traffic growth, and their own business models.
The result is that communications service providers are moving to transform their networks so that they too can be agile, flexible, and scalable while at the same time reducing the cost of scaling and operating their networks. In the new market landscape, it is clear that services, apps, and content are king, and that growth and continued success depends on “transitioning,” says Polychronopoulos, “from being communications providers to being rich services and content providers.”
It is a goal that all communications service providers—be they wireline telcos, cloud providers, or mobile network operators—see as both an opportunity and a risk. The key objectives, he explains, “are to make their networks more efficient,” but above all, “to roll out new services faster, and reduce their provisioning time from months and weeks to just days. That would enable them to rethink new business models and services.”
Virtualization and Transformation
For most telcos, the dominant network infrastructure is still legacy-based, and characterized, says Polychronopoulos, by “very complex infrastructures.” Composed of proprietary hardware and software, these networks are responsible for delivering volumes of network voice, video, and data traffic that dwarf the capacity of enterprise networks.
Polychronopoulos likens it to the transformation that online shopping brought to the shopping experience. “That was a true revolution,” he says, “but it didn’t happen overnight.” That same analogy pertains to service providers today. “They are transforming,” Polychronopoulos says, “from having complex infrastructure based on proprietary ‘big iron’ to fully end-to-end, virtualized networks running on commodity servers.” And the key technology to that transformation is compute, network, and storage virtualization.
The Role of NFV
In telco parlance, network functions virtualization, or NFV, allows for the virtualization of many network services, such as routers and firewalls, which are currently being performed by dedicated, proprietary hardware appliances. NFV replaces those appliances with software running on commercial, off-the-shelf servers. By doing so, NFV fundamentally changes the way current service provider networks are built and operated. It dramatically reduces the costs of scaling a service provider’s network, while significantly increasing the capability to bring new services to market by extending the benefits of cloud technology to the network edge.
“NFV is simply the agglomeration of all the software technology building blocks that enabled SDDC and public clouds,” says Polychronopoulos, “virtualization, SDN, virtual infrastructure management, analytics, and so on.” NFV brings these all together in a streamlined design, he continues, “overlaying support for high availability and real-time application/service-chaining capabilities.”
Polychronopoulos points out that VMware products and solutions are fundamental to the development of NFV. “VMware established virtualization as the core technology for modernizing the enterprise data center,” he says. “That’s the foundation upon which you build a cloud infrastructure.” By virtzualizing the three basic elements of the digital infrastructure—compute, storage, and networking—NFV now adds the management, orchestration, and single pane of monitoring and control to enable agile, scalable, and extensible networks for the 5G and IoT era. The resulting consolidation of all of these functions is called a network function virtualization infrastructure, or NFVI. Polychronopoulos explains, “NFVI is part of the drive to ‘flatten’ the network and aggregate the IT side and the core network side applications and services onto a common network infrastructure.”
VMware Positioned to Lead
“VMware has all the right building blocks for NFVI,” Polychronopoulos says. “Coupled with its carrier-focused support organization, VMware can address all of the stringent requirements, such as carrier-grade network performance, reliability, compliance, and predictable life cycle management that are missing from offerings based on open-source solutions and that often delay or even prevent operators from accelerating their transition to adopt NFVI.”
Polychronopoulos sees the transition to NFVI as an enormous opportunity for VMware customers around the globe. It is an opportunity, he says, that will usher in an unprecedented level of flexibility and freedom to differentiate for both service providers and their customers. “A level of freedom that requires breakthrough technology and solutions,” Polychronopoulos concludes. “Solutions and technology such as vCloud NFV, for which VMware is uniquely positioned to take the lead.”