As many of our Mobile World Congress interviewees point out, the virtualisation/automation of the network is not just a new technology introduction - it’s a complete business and structural re-think. It’s big and it affects everything so by neccesity it will take a while to complete. We’re going to see the chunks of the telco estate with the most to gain from NFV and SDN going first and we may see even larger bits hanging on for years without it.
Nearly all the large vendors, not all of them core telecom providers - Alcatel-Lucent, NSN, HP, Juniper, Cisco, Huawei, Broadsoft, Intel - have NFV/SDN positions and offerings. It’s now a question of do-si-do and pick your partners.
Telefonica is moving fast. It’s already been working on proof of concepts (PoC) with HP, Intel, Juniper, Ericsson and others and at MWC it announced that it would roll out Huawei kit as a first phase in an NFV framework it will adopt, code-named UNICA. It claims to be aiming at virtualising 30 per cent of its infrastructure by 2016 with the implementation scheduled to begin in June this year. This is quick off the blocks.
We tend to think of virtualisation and SDN as something that’s being done to the core network, but there is great scope for virtualising bits of what used to be called CPE and dragging its functions into the network. The control functions for things like WiFi/DSL hubs and set-top boxes, for instance, could stand to be implmented more efficiently from the network, and Telefonica has been running a virtual CPE trial in Brazil to that end.
Now think telecoms operators becoming TV providers. Rather than produce and track expensive set-tops, much better (security questions aside) to have relatively dumb (cheap) transmission devices in the home with the clever stuff happening on a server. This is effectively what Google has done with its Chromecast architecuture - the smartphone becomes the remote control via an app which signals up to the programming software in the network - all the little Chromecast dongle on the TV must do is intercept the resulting video stream.
Sprint is also a self-confessed NFV/SDN adherent, has worked with Telefonica on those PoCs and is thought to be readying an NFV strategy too.
AT&T also recently announced its plan - or at least the list of vendors it’s counting on to implement it. They include Ericsson, Metaswitch and Affirmed Networks, which is working on a virtual EPC with AT&T.
One thing is reasonably clear. NFV/SDN is not going to be a standards-first effort (if there’s anyone out there still thinking that it was). The whole idea of the new approaches is to inject agility into telco technology and service change. To wait two years for standards to be hammered into place is unthinkable. Telcos need to start engineering the changes now and working out a way to gain competitive advantage from them.