Network virtualization's fans urge carriers to embrace change

Tammy Parker, FierceWirelessTech

I expected to hear a lot about technology at last week's Carrier Network Virtualization event in Palo Alto, Calif., and I did. But I also heard a lot about the need for business culture change as well.

Numerous speakers and event attendees voiced the need for telecom operators to open their minds to virtualization. I heard lots of comments about operators "hugging their network hardware" (not salaciously) and being too conservative when it comes to swapping out their legacy equipment for software solutions. Of course, lots of folks pushing those perspectives were vendors that have products to sell to operators, which have every right to move cautiously.

Obviously telco executives have very good reasons for not wanting to forklift their network hardware overnight and replace it with software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) solutions. Fear is the chief reason. That includes fear of something going wrong, fear of losing customers if something goes wrong, fear of regulatory penalties if something goes wrong, fear of a stockholder revolt if something goes wrong and fear of sudden unemployment if something goes wrong.

Nonetheless, some operators are advocating a rapid migration to virtualization. Deutsche Telekom is a prime example. The German operator's TeraStream architectural vision involves a new cloud-based network template that embraces newer technologies such as IPv6.

Axel Clauberg, vice president of aggregation, transport, IP and fixed access at Deutsche Telecom, addressed the conference from Germany via a video Skype connection. He urged telcos to simplify their operations and junk their legacy equipment, which he said prevents carriers from bringing new services to market. He added that infrastructure data centers are the key component in the evolving IP network.

Clauberg's comments echoed an oft-repeated mantra heard at the conference: "The data center is becoming the network."

But many speakers acknowledged that virtualization will involve a lengthy transition. Jeff Glueck, CEO of Skyfire and executive vice president of operator solutions at Opera, explained that often the carrier executives he speaks to about adopting a virtualized approach are the same ones whose positions would be eliminated by virtualization. He described how operators can take a less threatening path by virtualizing their network's evolved packet core (EPC) in stages.

"You can't forklift upgrades to a virtualized EPC for all services overnight. That's a very tall order," he said. But a mobile operator could start by virtualizing applications such as Voice over LTE (VoLTE) or video optimization. This will enable them to create use cases that can complement the existing architecture without ripping out their legacy network.

Then an operator could set up a vEPC for MVNOs riding on its network. Then, only after those scenarios are proved out and internal resistance has been overcome, would the time be ripe for virtualizing the full EPC. To that end, Glueck said SDN and NFV benefits can be realized today as a proving ground for a future virtualized architecture.

CENX during the Palo Alto show announced a multimillion-dollar software deal that will enable a Tier 1 operator to manage its LTE mobile backhaul network. Chris Purdy, the company's CTO, succinctly summed up the need to move purposefully yet cautiously toward network virtualization: "The technology may be revolutionary, but the introduction of the technology needs to be evolutionary," he said. --Tammy