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Another course correction for 5G: network operators want closer NFV collaboration

empty meeting room

via Flickr © Malmaison Hotels & Brasseries (CC BY-ND 2.0)

  • Last week 22 operators and vendors (the G22) pushed for a 3GPP speed-up
  • This week an NFV White Paper: this time urging closer 5G & NFV interworking 
  • 5G should support 'cloud native' functions to optimise reuse

Just over four years ago, in late 2012, the industry was buzzing with talk of network functions virtualization (NFV). With the publication of the NFV White Paper and the establishment of the ETSI ISG, what had been a somewhat academic topic was suddenly on a timeline. And it had a heavyweight set of carrier backers and pushers who were making it clear to the vendor community that they expected it to “play nice” and to design, test and produce NFV solutions in a spirit of coopetition.

By most accounts the ETSI NFV effort has lived up to and beyond expectations. NFV is here and either in production or scheduled for deployment by most of the world’s telcos.

Four years later, with 5G now just around the corner, another White Paper has been launched. This time its objective is to urge both NFV and 5G standards-setters to properly consider operator requirements and priorities for the interworking of NFV and 5G, something they maintain is critical for network operators who are basing their futures on the successful convergence of the two sets of technologies.

‘Network Operator Perspectives on NFV Priorities for 5G’ is, the authors say, completely independent of the NFV ISG, is not an NFV ISG document and is not endorsed by it. The 23 listed network operators who have put their names to the document include Cablelabs, Bell Canada, DT, Chinas Mobile and Unicom, BT, Orange, Sprint, Telefonica and Vodafone.  

Many of the telco champions of the NFV ISG are authors; in particular Don Clarke, Diego López and Francisco Javier Ramón Salguero, Bruno Chatras and Markus Brunner.

The paper points out that if NFV was a solution looking for a problem, then 5G is just the sort of complex problem it requires. Taken together, 5G’s use cases imply a need for high scalability, ultra-low latency, an ability to support multiple concurrent sessions; ultra-high reliability and high security. It points out that each 5G use case has significantly different characteristics and demands specific combinations of these requirements to make it work. NFV has the functions which can satisfy the use cases: things like Network Slicing, Edge Computing, Security, Reliability, and Scalability are all there and ready to be put to work.

As NFV is explicitly about separating data and control planes to provide a flexible, future-proofed platform for whatever you want to run over it, then 5G and NFV would seem, by definition, to be perfect partners already. 

Where’s the issue?

What seems to be worrying the NFV advocates is that an NFV-based infrastructure designed for 5G needs to go further if it’s to meet carriers’ broader network goals. That means it will be tasked to not only enable 5G, but also support other applications -  many spawned by 5G but others simply ‘fixed’ network applications evolving from the existing network.

Then there’s a problem of reciprocity. Again, if the NFV ISG is to support that broader set of purposes and possible developments, not only should it work with other bodies to identify and address gaps for it to support; the process should be two-way.

One of the things the operators behind the paper seem most anxious to avoid is wasteful duplication of effort. So they want to encourage identity and reuse of “common technical NFV features”  to avoid that happening.

“Given that the goal of NFV is to decouple network functions from hardware, and virtualized    network functions are designed to run in a generic IT cloud    environment, cloud-native design principles and cloud-friendly licensing models are critical matters,” says the paper.

The NFV ISG has very much developed its thinking around those so-called ‘Cloud-native’ functions instead of big fat monolithic ones (which are often just re-applications of proprietary ‘non virtual’ functions). By contrast ‘cloud native’ is where functions are decomposed into reusable components which gives the approach all sorts of advantages.  Obviously a smooth interworking of NFV and 5G won’t be possible if 5G doesn’t follow this approach too.

As you would expect there has been outreach between the standards groups already, but clearly a few specialist chats at industry body meetings are not seen, by these operator representatives at least, as enough to ensure proper convergence of NFV and 5G. Real compromises will have to sought and made.

Watch Preparing for 5G: what should go on the CSP ‘to do’ list? 

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