Informa: SDN, virtualization will first be applied to network core

In order to compete successfully in the future, mobile operators need to embrace IT concepts beyond the data center and virtualize the access, core, transport, service provisioning and signaling parts of the network and OSS, according to a new white paper from Informa Telecoms & Media.

The white paper was written by Informa Principal Analyst Dimitris Mavrakis and sponsored by systems integrator Altran. It addresses both software-defined networking (SDN)--which separates the control and data plans--and virtualization, which "allows the implementation of network components in software, thus replacing proprietary equipment with commoditized IT platforms that run virtual machines."

Mavrakis contends that network transformation will most likely begin in the core network, even though virtualization and software-defined networking are likely to result in greater cost savings in the radio access network (RAN). "The centralized nature of the core network and its ability to handle heavy traffic is the reason why virtualization and SDN are likely to be relevant," the paper said.

In fact, Nokia (NYSE:NOK) Solutions and Networks recently demonstrated a proof-of-concept evolved packet core virtualization with South Korea's SK Telecom. The companies said the networks functions virtualization (NFV) project "showed successful results for capacity scaling for both throughput and signaling traffic in connection with smartphone usage patterns."

According to Mavrakis, once selected relevant components are virtualized, the next step will involve advanced hypervisors and virtualization technologies, which will allow the deployment of the concept in the broader network. However, virtualization of the full network will take time as this will entail capital expenditures and even network downtime.

Informa core network transformation roadmap

The signaling infrastructure--particularly use of Diameter--will have to be transformed to handle thousands or even millions of new connected devices. This will ultimately entail evolution to a distributed Diameter network that possesses redundancy and is implemented in a cloud environment. "The ultimate goal is also to deploy virtualized Diameter infrastructure, which will allow adjacent elements to exchange resources to handle traffic demand," according to Mavrakis.

The white paper also addressed the ongoing transformation to all-IP networks and services, as exemplified by voice over LTE (VoLTE). Mobility between 3G and LTE networks is expected to become a bigger issue as LTE becomes more widespread. "This is another area that may require extensive transformation and would benefit from virtualized architectures," Mavrakis said.  

End-to-end infrastructure vendors are well-positioned to help operators achieve the necessary transformation, "but there remains a question as to whether this will increase vendor lock-in," Informa said in a press release. It added that specialist vendors with a limited network footprint are unlikely to lead the transformation.  

In a not-so-veiled nod to white paper sponsor Altran, Informa said system integrators can fill the gap "by combining best-of-breed components, open-source tools, existing infrastructure and various other tools to provide what the operators require."

Other industry players have also highlighted the opportunities that virtualization offers to new competitors. For example, Kelly Herrell, vice president and general manager of the software networking business at Brocade, said earlier this year, "There is case study after case study of large industries that went through massive disruption. When this happens, the vendor landscape changes dramatically."

For more:
- see this Informa release
- see this joint NSN and SK Telecom release

Related articles:
SDN will be 2014's biggest network trend, says Strategy Analytics
Initial NFV specs point way to virtualized telecom infrastructure
Virtualization creating a breeding ground for rival vendors
Ericsson CTO: Virtualization will open up mobile to OTT innovation
Oracle: Policy, online charging drive increase in LTE Diameter signaling

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