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Status report 2017: NFV deployments grow; standards issues remain

Large service providers are continuing their NFV deployments, which will enable 5G wireless and IoT. But management, orchestration and standards questions remain.

With the maturing of virtual network technology, communications service providers have made significant strides in their network functions virtualization, or NFV, adoption over the last year. The leading use cases for virtualization have been in the data center, virtual customer premises equipment, video, security and mobile core -- with virtual Evolved Packet Core and virtual IP Multimedia Subsystem, for example.

Deployments in 2016 proved the value of NFV and SDN for specific applications. This year, leading service providers will deploy NFV at scale from additional applications across their networks. A number of leading providers are now reporting the progress they are making in terms of virtualizing their networks.

Key areas of investment for service providers in regard to software networking include:

  • Mobile core
  • Virtual customer premises equipment (vCPE)
  • Video
  • Security
  • Analytics and traffic monitoring

5G, IoT and video

Fifth-generation (5G) deployment. The 5G standard is emerging for the deployment of next-generation wireless networks -- supplanting the current 4G Long Term Evolution networks. The goals of 5G are to dramatically increase network bandwidth, merge wireline and wireless architectures, and support the billions of internet of things (IoT) devices needing wireless connectivity. The 5G standard relies on NFV and SDN to provide the intelligence at the wireless edge to handle complex traffic handling and routing. The coming migration to 5G wireless networks will accelerate the use of software on standardized hardware platforms starting in 2018 and 2019.

Internet of things. IoT is the term for a wide range of applications that connect devices or things to a centralized network and data center. Many IoT applications require edge computing to power analytics, security and performance monitoring. As service providers continue to roll out new services for IoT, this will accelerate NFV deployment to drive high-capacity mobile cores -- i.e., virtual Evolved Packet Core (vEPC) -- and mobile edge computing.

Video. Bandwidth requirements for video traffic continue to grow, and this growth places significant stress on existing wireline and wireless networks. It is not just the amount of traffic, but the complexity of delivering low-latency, high-quality video that challenges leading service providers. NFV delivers the economics to reduce the costs of video delivery and the core and edge compute capacity to enable low-latency video.

Lack of NFV standards affects deployments

A large number of competing standards purport to set the architectural framework for multivendor management and orchestration of NFV. These standards come from various standards bodies, technology vendors and large service providers.

Each group hoping to set definitive NFV standards comes at it from a particular point of view that can meet their needs. Most large providers think of their networks as providing a unique competitive advantage.

Network and IT suppliers have an economic stake in making sure their products are best-positioned to deliver integrated NFV products. This market structure and the competing standards bodies make it challenging for service providers to pick the winning long-term NFV orchestration architecture. Some of these standards groups include Open Platform for NFV, European Telecommunications Standards Institute, OpenDaylight and OpenStack.

Tier-one service providers adopting NFV

AT&T has provided broad insight into its NFV and SDN deployments, and it has set a target of 55% network virtualization by the end of 2017. AT&T's leading NFV deployments include:

  • Regional data centers;
  • Virtual CPE projects, like virtual routers from Cisco and Juniper, security from Fortinet and WAN acceleration from Riverbed; and
  • Virtual network probes.

AT&T has released open source elements of its NFV architecture -- Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management and Policy -- in partnership with Orange, Bell Canada and several leading vendors in the hope of getting other service providers and NFV vendors to adopt this as a standard.

All of the large service providers have unique plans to develop and deploy NFV technologies at a measured pace in their networks.

Verizon has also publically discussed its virtualization efforts. It has sponsored significant development with OpenStack and Residential Central Office Re-Architected as Datacenter. It has deployed a number of regional data centers with NFV technology from Big Switch Networks, Dell and Red Hat. Verizon currently offers vCPE services that include security, WAN optimization and software-defined WAN.

Telefónica recently announced vEPC deployments with multiple suppliers across a number of countries where it provides service in Europe and Latin America. Telefónica is also developing vCPE services based on NFV technology.

Other service providers making good progress on NFV deployments include CenturyLink, NTT, SoftBank Group, Deutsche Telekom and Swisscom.

NFV deployment recommendations

All of the large service providers have unique plans to develop and deploy NFV technologies at a measured pace in their networks. This year will see continued NFV and SDN deployment across a range of applications that include data centers, mobile core, vCPE, video and security. Over the next few years, IoT and 5G deployments will continue to accelerate the deployment and use of NFV.

Lack of clear NFV management and orchestration standards, poor multivendor interoperability, and the challenges of linking virtual networks to existing operations and business support systems will continue to slow NFV deployments for some service providers.

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