VMware executive sees clear correlation between 5G, virtualization

VMware sees a clear correlation between 5G and the need to virtualize networks. (FierceWireless)

While some operators like BT have called NFV “unimpressive” and others prefer to focus on the cloud, virtualization is still very much a part of operators’ path to 5G, according to VMware.

Of course, VMware is a vendor in the NFV space, so its stance is not exactly surprising. But with its profile rising in the wireless/telco industry, it has been making moves to help customers accelerate their VNF deployments.

The NFV movement in the telco space kicked off with the release of an operator-driven white paper in 2012, and since then, the transition to NFV has been slower for some than others. In the U.S., AT&T has been a big champion of the virtualization movement, setting internal goals of having more than 75% of its network using software-defined architecture by 2020.

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Customers that have chosen VMware’s NFV platform are well on their way to being in production and accelerating new services on the platform, according to Honore LaBourdette, VP of global market development in the Telco Business Group at VMware. But she acknowledges that some telcos have struggled with NFV because they didn’t have a clear path to how they were actually going to deploy NFV, and some of them may be finding it’s more difficult or expensive  than they envisioned.

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LaBourdette harkened back to a rather bold statement that VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger made during Mobile World Congress 2017 in Barcelona: There’s going to be two kinds of 5G deployments: those that are virtualized and those that do not succeed.

“I think the industry has pretty much recognized the infrastructure needs to be software defined,” she told FierceWirelessTech. Granted, some telcos might skip the step of virtualizing the infrastructure in exchange for moving towards more of a container model to distribute the cloud from the core to the edge. But whatever the technology they choose, they have to transform the infrastructure.

The correlation between virtualization and 5G is twofold, she said. One has to do with the core. The only way to scale 5G from a core network function and an operating model is to software define that infrastructure, she said.

With 5G proliferating all the way to the edge for both consumer and enterprise applications, trillions of network edge end points and devices will need to be connected, and it’s cost-prohibitive to think that an operator is going to be able to support that with a bare metal hardware vertical stack type of solution, she said.

The other aspect is 5G will offer the capacity to push the applications all the way to the edge. It could be the end user or a device, or an IoT monitor, and operators are going to need to push computing to that edge. Computing has to be done at the device level and the only way to support that is to actually virtualize it, she said.

The same reasons for virtualizing at the core are going to get pushed out into the distributed cloud and that’s another reason virtualization is important to 5G, she said. More activity will be at the edge, and “you need to have a technology that goes from the core all the way to the edge to support the compute requirements” for applications like autonomous cars.

VMware is going into production with about 60 carriers, and some of them are running as many as 20, 30 or 40 virtual network functions on their platform, she said.

“I think that for everyone who went down the path to software define the infrastructure, it was a bit of unchartered territory,” she said. Now going into 2019, “it’s become less of an unchartered territory. I think you’re going to start to see an acceleration of NFV in the marketplace,” regardless of whether it’s from VMware, a do-it-yourself solution or another vendor’s open source virtualization platform. “I think you’ll start to see an acceleration of it.”

With any transformational effort, there’s a period of time—hopefully not more than a year but it could potentially be more than a year—“to actually transform the infrastructure and that platform. It really is a fairly Herculean task. It’s not something that you just flip a switch and do.”