3 reasons why network virtualization won’t fly – and what we can do about it
NFV, like the ostrich, appears grounded
The honeymoon is over.
After nearly half a decade of dabbling in network virtualization, the telecoms industry is waking up to a harsh reality: it may have hitched itself to NFV/SDN, but married life is far from a bed of roses. Instead, "we find ourselves mired in an unprecedented mess," according to Steve Saunders, founder of industry portal Light Reading. His statement strikes a strong chord with me.
So far, few – if any – operators have been able to reap the much-vaunted benefits of NFV/SDN virtualization. Instead of cost-savings, they have seen mounting integration costs. Instead of building open, multi-vendor networks, they still find themselves tied to individual suppliers. And because networks aren’t all that open, creating an ongoing string of innovative services has remained nothing more than a pipedream.
There’s a serious risk that NFV/SDN will go the way of so many ground-breaking technologies in our industry: snuffed out by a fear of cutting off the branch we’re sitting on.
There are three reasons why virtualization won’t ‘fly’, and we’ve got to tackle them urgently to give our sector a new lease on life.
No commitment to open source
Some lay the blame for the ‘mess’ we’re in at the feet of standards bodies. In over four years, they have failed to create a broad basis for interoperability, hampering the take-up of virtualization technology. To me, this suggests that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. NFV/SDN is so fundamentally different from anything we’ve done before in telecoms that our institutions are ill-equipped to handle it.
Cloud computing has shown us that open source development is a much more efficient route to standardization. By collaborating and pooling resources, code can be created and validated faster, and security issues and bugs resolved more quickly. There is little need for integration, either. Software can be configured to a transparent code base rather than a ‘black box’ with a few standardised APIs. This transparency also means that operators can ‘mix’ products from different vendors more easily, ending the scourge of vendor lock-in.
For these dynamics to work, you need a critical mass of industry players to throw their weight behind an open source initiative. It does not help when separate projects are set up to achieve one and the same thing. The Linux Foundation wisely brought together the Open-O and Open ECOMP initiatives under the ONAP banner. However, the Open MANO group continues alongside, not to mention proprietary initiatives.
For NFV to succeed, two things need to happen: first, the industry must commit to open source, full stop. Second, to develop a function, we need to unite behind a single open source project rather than fragmenting the support base.
Automation or bust
The importance of automation for NFV/SDN has been all but ignored to date. Everyone has been talking up cost savings and ‘service agility’ but forgetting to mention that these can only be realized once network and service operations are automated.
The ideal is for networks to virtually run themselves, using AI and machine learning to make decisions more and more independently, without human intervention. The potential in terms of costs, time and ease of provisioning are self-evident.
Admittedly, machine learning has a long way to go before it will give us this level of automation. But the bigger issue is that carriers have been slow to commit resources to automation. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, automation means giving up a high degree of control over the network. Secondly, it often falls into the ‘too hard’ basket.
If we want to make NFV/SDN investments pay off, operators will have to get over their misgivings and sign up to operational automation. We can turn all the switches and routers in the world into software, but without automation, we’ll never see any real-world benefits.
Changing a culture steeped in tradition
This leads me to the third reason virtualization may never achieve its full potential: culture.
Arguably, culture is the single biggest factor holding back NFV/SDN. Our industry may be seeking a place at the heart of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but it is steeped in tradition and set in its ways.
Virtualization is shaking things up and creating uncertainty. Traditional operator ‘silos’ are merging and job functions are blurring. As new roles emerge, fundamental re-training and new recruitment will be needed. As proprietary approaches give way to collaborative efforts and operators gain more freedom of choice, vendors see their established sales models crumble. All this sits rather uncomfortably with the telecoms community, and explains – at least in part – its half-hearted commitment to virtualization.
But the fact is, there is no plan B. NFV/SDN is our best bet right here, right now.
So while the cultural transformation will be the hardest and won’t happen overnight, we need to get over ourselves and adapt to the changes that an increasingly digitalized world is throwing at us.
Back to Plan A
Telecoms is one of the most competitive markets in the world: carriers are not just fighting off other carriers. They also face stiff competition from OTT content providers, virtual network operators and cloud service providers, to name but a few. If we want our industry to stay competitive, we must ensure that it stays relevant and bring its technology, processes and culture ‘up to scratch.’
This blog is part of our ONAP Insider series, which takes you behind the scenes, offering a more in-depth look at the workings of ONAP, how it is changing business models, simplifying network design and untapping new business opportunities for service providers, content developers and end-users.