Justin Bieber, the cloud and the quest for virtualization

Tammy Parker, FierceBroadbandWirelessJustin Bieber is a mobile network's worst nightmare. A little more than a year ago, the teen heartthrob temporarily took down Norway's mobile networks by performing a short concert in central Oslo, prompting frantic teens to share images of the landmark event via their smartphones with friends, neighbors and anyone else who might be interested.

That the pandemonium occurred in Oslo was serendipity, but mobile industry players based in the area, including Opera Software, surely took note. Perhaps that's why nine months after the Bieber-driven network-crippling incident, Opera acquired Skyfire, adding the Mountain View, Calif., company's video-optimization and smartphone monetization products to Opera's operator business unit.

Jeff Glueck, CEO of Skyfire and now executive vice president of Opera Software, said one-time events such as the free Bieber concert are the kinds of things that make life difficult for network planners.

Skyfire has been working to deal with such unanticipated situations, delving into software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV). "It's not just about moving to standardized hardware, but thanks to the cloud and virtualization, you can double your capacity in minutes," said Glueck.

Though some carriers and vendors believe SDN and NFV will hit mobile networks in 2015 or 2016, Skyfire is already working with mobile operators to implement these technologies.

In fact, Skyfire is working with ConteXtream to arm a Tier 1 U.S. wireless operator--widely rumored, though not officially confirmed, to be Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ)--with SDN technology to virtualize almost half of its network. ConteXtream is handling the SDN part, enabling steering of certain kinds of traffic as needed to a virtualized compute farm, where Skyfire's software runs.

In addition, Skyfire and ConteXtream are part of a three-year global frame agreement between Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE:ALU) and Norway-based Telenor Group, which is hustling to deploy technology that will ensure its mobile operations in 11 countries will be equipped to handle skyrocketing use of over-the-top OTT video services.

Skyfire has a "cloudburst" function, which automatically reaches out to different data centers that an operator may have to orchestrate additional servers for optimization on the fly. The system can also contact Amazon EC2 or Rackspace cloud servers for instant capacity increases.

When implemented in a carrier's network, Skyfire's technology constantly scans the network, monitoring data sessions in real time and seeking problematic ones, which may not be getting optimal bandwidth due to a congested cell tower or the location of a customer at the cell edge or inside a building, for instance.

As needed, Skyfire then redirects the traffic flow to a data center where, in the case of a Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) YouTube video, for example, the video can be optimized to fit the bandwidth that is actually available to that user. "Our average bandwidth savings for video is over 60 percent," said Glueck.

The company's approach is much different from the traditional, legacy network approach, which requires operators to have "rooms and rooms full of boxes" to handle occasional demand overflows, said Glueck.

"We can stay out of the way most of the time, so you avoid rooms full of boxes, but you can double capacity when you need it," he said.

By implementing software-defined intelligence into the network to deliver cloud-based shaping and optimization only as needed, operators should be able to dramatically reduce both capex and opex, said Glueck. And just as important, operators can be prepared for those one-time traffic overloads that threaten to crash their networks.

Time will tell if these cloud-based technological roadmaps actually play out as promised. If Biebermania or some other teen craze hits the middle of Oslo in the next couple of years, Telenor's upgraded network there may become an excellent guinea pig for proving the value of virtualization and optimization. And maybe those industry nightmares about Justin Bieber will finally come to an end.--Tammy