Affirmed's CEO: NFV 'has made telecom sexy again'

Tammy Parker, FierceWirelessTech

Affirmed Networks wasn't exactly flying below the radar before AT&T (NYSE:T) announced plans to include the vendor's virtualized evolved packet core (vEPC) as the carrier develops its "user-defined network cloud," which is being enabled by the carrier's Domain 2.0 supplier program. After all, four-year-old Affirmed has some 30 technology trials underway and deployments with Tier 1 wireless operators in Europe, Asia and the United States.

Not only that, the vendor won 2012 Fierce Innovation Awards for both Best New Product & Service and for Core Innovation. Both awards were given for Affirmed's AN3000 off-the-shelf hardware platform that hosts the Affirmed Mobile Content Cloud, which enables operators to deploy a vEPC, including SGW/PGW functions defined in the LTE EPC 3G and 4G specifications, MME 4G signaling function and PCRF 3G/4G policy control function. The cloud solution also provides charging, TCP/IP application and content management and delivery services.

Nonetheless, a lot of people said "who?" when Affirmed was named as an AT&T supplier. Though the young company has garnered notable public accolades, Hassan Ahmed, Affirmed's chairman and CEO, acknowledged in a recent interview with FierceWirelessTech that the company has been much more focused on creating virtualization solutions for mobile networks and working directly with carriers rather spending a lot of time marketing itself through the trade press and mass media.

These days, the company finds itself in the thick of Network Functions Virtualization (NFV), a term that had not yet become an industry buzzword back when Affirmed was started in 2010. Ahmed, who previously was senior advisor at Charles River Ventures after serving as chairman and CEO of Sonus Networks for 10 years, said Affirmed was formed once it appeared that virtualization would provide "a meaningful enough disruption" to make a startup worthwhile.

Realizing that mobile networks could no longer be commoditized enough to support exponential data growth, Affirmed's founders sought tools that would let them build a flexible, scalable mobile network.

They came up with an idea, revolutionary in its time, for reducing an entire data path to a set of virtualized software functions and then orchestrating services across those functions so operators could create new services and service models "in Internet speeds rather than telco speeds," Ahmed said.

Since Affirmed's early steps in virtualization, NFV has come to prominence via the publication of a white paper from a group of network operators in October 2012, timed to coincide with the formation of ETSI's NFV Industry Specification Group (ISG). That white paper has helped galvanize the industrywide push for NFV.

"Over the last year, it's become a much more solid thing in the psyche of the operators," Ahmed said.

And just as important, the quest for virtualization has reinvigorated network design and investor interest. "NFV has made telecom sexy again," Ahmed noted.

However, one consequence of NFV becoming an industry buzzword is the rush of posers saying they "do NFV." Some companies are pursuing a proof-of-concept (PoC) approach where they take code from legacy hardware and offer to package that code as a virtual machine and run it on a data center platform, Ahmed said.

Popping code from an old platform into a VM ultimately reduces performance below that of even the legacy equipment. Further, Ahmed said the "giant flaw" in this approach is that it still harkens back to the old network model that relies upon custom hardware.

If an operator opts to transform the legacy products it is using into virtual machines, "you get a software version of the inflexible network that you had to start with," he noted.

"In order to deliver the level of performance that the network demands, in this very off-the-shelf, standard hardware kind of model, you really have to think about your software architecture as a parallel architecture to take advantage of the capabilities of the servers," Ahmed continued.

Affirmed's "secret sauce," he said, "is that we had a nice clean sheet of paper when we started. We weren't bound by trying to transform some legacy thing."

Though it is admittedly early days for NFV, Affirmed wants operators to know that its technology is solid and ready for prime time. The vendor has what Ahmed calls "the only production-level solutions available" for mobile networks.

"In fact, we've been really pleased in the last year that we've gotten selected for a little over a dozen deployments with operators," he noted.

Affirmed has also garnered numerous fans in the venture capital world and has raised about $100 million to date. Its Series C round, announced in June 2013, brought in $51 million. Investors include Matrix Partners, Charles River Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners, T-Venture (the venture capital arm of Deutsche Telekom) and Vodafone Ventures.--Tammy