Is a large wave of network functions virtualization deployments on the horizon? The transformative role of NFV in carrier networks, much like that of software-defined networking, has been widely discussed for years now, but there has been uncertainty about when the rubber would actually hit the road here. Many possible impediments, both technical and cultural, lie in the way, such as evolving carrier operations to embrace DevOps automation:
Overall, DevOps is essential to the success of NFV (and SDN) deployment but a big change from the status quo. It makes sense, then, that it is still at the early stages at many carriers, although recent evidence of accelerating NFV rollout might suggest that substantial change - including concurrent uptake of DevOps - could be afoot.
Big NFV deployments could be underway
The Dell'Oro Group recently released a study finding that widespread NFV on production networks could be just around the corner. More specifically, vendors like Alcatel-Lucent have reported a dramatic pick-up in the number of telcos moving from proof-of-concept to production.
However, it is important not to get expectations up too high just yet, considering that many deployments are still just single virtual functions running on dedicated pieces of hardware. Utilization of multiple functions as well as white boxes would more fully take advantage of NFV's potential and may be years away for traditionally risk-averse carriers.
The bear case for NFV is that caution as well as underwhelming initial results (especially compared to the hype surrounding both NFV and SDN) could slow its deployment. ARM's Robert Monkman told SDxCentral that latency, power efficiency and network performance could all come in short of expectations once carriers move NFV out of testing and into the real world.
"Carriers need to move quickly as their turf is challenged by cloud organizations."
On the other hand, a bull case for NFV could be built around the high stakes for increasing business agility in a cloud-centric competitive landscape. Carriers need to move quickly as their turf is challenged by the Googles, Facebooks, Apples and Microsofts of the world pushing alternatives to voice, SMS and other services.
"To maximize the average revenue per user associated with existing voice services and to avoid turning into a 'me too' commodity service, service providers must become more agile and flexible, rolling out additional revenue generating services rapidly and repeatable," explained Heavy Reading contributing analyst Denise Culver in a post for VanillaPlus. "While NFV provides the ability to roll out services rapidly, a wide ecosystem allows operators to choose the best solutions possible and deliver an extensive range of unique value-added services."
Culver argued that carriers were in for a "steep learning curve" in the years ahead due to the need to understand many new technological components and organizational practices. Partnerships with vendors and others in the growing NFV ecosystem may be pivotal to easing NFV deployment.
Organizations flock to open source projects to accelerate development of NFV
One area to keep an eye on as carriers become more immersed in NFV is open source projects like OpenDaylight. The initiative, which includes among its members many of the world's largest networking equipment suppliers and software companies, recently added an important newcomer in Comcast, the largest cable TV/broadband home Internet provider in the U.S.
Comcast had been testing ODL software since the project launched two years ago. According to Comcast senior principal engineer Chris Luke, the company, like many other service providers, is looking to reduce the operational complexity of its networks and promote additional automation.
Moving away from a complex system to something simpler will be key as Comcast looks to deploy new services as quickly as possible. It was looking for something with support beyond just OpenFlow, and it has capitalized on ODL's flexibility by creating an ODL-based SDN app that helps easily move content around the network during times of service disruption.
The takeaway: Carriers are still just getting started with NFV. However, speed of deployment could be accelerating as they realize the stakes for moving fast to roll out new services and avoid being commoditized. Look for more partnerships between service providers and vendors, as well as between both of these parties and open source community efforts like ODL, as NFV and DevOps become front and center concerns. As carriers pursue DevOps as the companion to SDN and NFV network transformation, cloud platforms like QualiSystems CloudShell can also help carriers as they qualify and certify services in an agile fashion.