Editor's Corner—Telecom’s move to software and virtualization hounded by the same old problems

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Interoperability is one of the few key tenets underpinning the growth of the global telecommunications industry.

AUSTIN, Texas—For years, carriers and vendors have been touting the wonders of software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV). These technologies, the argument goes, will enable network operators to replace expensive, proprietary hardware with software-powered, virtualized services running on cheap, off-the-shelf hardware. The result, vendors and carriers have said, will be an industry that can pivot on a dime, quickly developing and launching new, powerful, revenue-generating services while cutting costs in the process.

The result, however, is not quite that. At least not yet.

“It’s some organized chaos,” Sprint’s Ron Marquardt said this week during a panel discussion here at the BCE trade show, in discussing the implementation of SDN and NFV technologies.

“We want the standards to catch up,” added Andrew Dugan, Level 3’s CTO, explaining that the operator has developed some of its own SDN and NFV technology but is reluctant to go much further down that path due to concerns that what the company develops might not interoperate with services from other vendors or carriers.

“We’re pretty early on in the development of these standards,” said Pascal Menezes, who serves as CTO and advisory director for MEF, a trade association working on certification and interoperability of SDN and NFV technologies.

AT&T and Verizon

To be clear, some operators have touted success in this area. AT&T, an early mover in the SDN and NVF space, has said it expects that fully 55% of its network operations will be virtualized by the end of this year. AT&T’s Flexware line of products, including its bandwidth-on-demand offerings and some of its security services, stem from its move to these technologies.

But still, AT&T doesn’t yet have any concrete cost savings it can point to from its virtualized, software-powered migration. AT&T’s John Donovan earlier this year declined to put cost-savings metrics around the effort, noting it would only serve to create concern among the carrier’s vendors and customers, and that AT&T has increased spending in other areas while obtaining savings through virtualization. Indeed, AT&T’s capital expense projections for 2017 are largely in line with what the operator spent last year.

Other operators, however, are offering more pointed concerns about the industry’s move toward software and virtualization.

For example, Victoria Lonker, executive director of network and virtual solutions at Verizon, said that the operator’s decision to standardize much of its software efforts on OpenStack “is a challenge right now.” She explained that some vendors are now charging Verizon software-development fees as they work to move existing software products onto OpenStack. She added that, more recently, Verizon has encountered additional problems due to disparate, incompatible implementations of OpenStack.

Such problems aren’t really a secret, though. Organizations ranging from MEF to the TM Forum to ETSI are working on ways to standardize the implementation of software in the telecom industry. Those efforts appear to be progressing—for example, the Linux Foundation recently merged AT&T’s ECOMP platform with its own Open-O effort to form the new Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP), a move that was billed as a “broad effort and investment [that] will expedite our vision to deliver an open platform for network automation.”

“We need to keep going on the standards route,” Boingo’s CTO Derek Peterson said.

But standardization efforts in this area are still in their early phases, and expenses are mounting.

In discussing the use of open source software in the industry’s move to SDN and NFV, Cisco’s Yvette Kanouff said the company has so far spent $2 billion supporting open source software architectures. “Are they really open, or are they proprietary because there are so many [standards]?” Kanouff asked.

For his part, AT&T’s John Donovan defended the telecom industry’s use of open source software. “It really doesn’t have a downside,” Donovan said of the proliferation of open source software in the telecom industry. He also cautioned against “hot tub parties” where actions are slowed by the need to obtain industrywide consensus.

Still, those in the industry are increasingly calling for testing, certification and, ultimately, interoperability among the various technologies and platforms that underpin the SDN and NFV space.

“The more we can unify, the more we can innovate,” Cisco’s Kanouff noted.

Trouble with interoperability

Chris Rice, SVP of Domain 2.0 architecture and design at AT&T Labs, agreed that interoperability among software and virtualization technologies would speed the telecom industry’s evolution to a virtualized, software-defined future. But he cautioned that it wouldn’t be easy. Using the analogy of Apple’s iOS App Store, he noted the setup works well because each app is specifically designed for the platform, thus assuring interoperability. But he pointed out that those iOS apps don’t necessarily need to communicate with each other—whereas most elements inside a carrier’s SDN/NFV system would need to do so. He said that AT&T is working in this area and has reduced its Virtual Network Function (VNF) testing times from weeks to just a few days.

It’s no surprise that the telecom industry is calling for more interoperability in its migration to SDN and NFV. After all, interoperability is one of the few key tenets underpinning the growth of the global telecommunications industry—communications only work when everyone speaks the same language.

Further, it’s a lesson the industry has learned over and over again. For example, at the turn of the century, I covered the industry’s move toward interoperable text messaging. When U.S. carriers first launched SMS, customers of one carrier couldn’t send text messages to customers of another carrier. But with the aid of CTIA and messaging vendors like InphoMatch, MobileSpring, Numerex, Verisign and LogicaCMG, the carriers eventually connected their text messaging systems and enabled SMS interoperability.

That process took years to finish. And all it needed to do was make sure 160 characters could travel from one network to another.

Obviously, the industry has advanced significantly since the early days of SMS. But SDN and NFV are significantly more complex than SMS. Thus, I think it’s reasonable to assume the world’s network operators will at some point achieve software-powered, virtualized interoperability. But it won’t happen quickly and it won’t happen cleanly. — Mike | @mikeddano