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NFV Escape Velocity

Telco_Editor

 

Most technology professionals have, at some point in their career, learned about the classic technology adoption pattern identified by the research firm, Gartner. The Gartner Hype Cycle illustrates how a good idea starts out with a great deal of positive energy and optimism where expectations run high, but eventually must go through actual development and first deployments. In those first deployments, inflated expectations clash with reality, and the result is some amount of disillusionment. Only the best ideas move past this phase, and onto long-term productive use. Now, midway through 2015, it’s time to evaluate where NFV is with respect to the model.

 

Last July, Gartner placed NFV technology on the downslope, sliding into the Trough of Disillusionment. While this sounds bad, it is critical to remember that every technology, good or bad, must make its way through the Trough. The difference is how long they linger there, and whether they ever make it over to the other side. In this article, we’ll discuss a few of the reasons NFV has made it to the downslope so quickly, some of the “disillusions” that are emerging, and the reasons we can expect a quick crossing of the chasm into productivity.

We’ll frame the discussion using Gartner’s famous curve, and also drawing from the discussions we had at the quarterly Executive Leadership Forum (ELF) on NFV issues. HP hosts ELF meetings in partnership with the Telecom Council of Silicon Valley. The meeting attendees represent companies at the center of the NFV universe, including telecom infrastructure vendors, virtualization companies, CSPs, server companies and various types of startups. Regardless of their specific interests, all participants are eager to share and learn about the current state of NFV, roadmaps and the challenges ahead.

 

NFV’s Pace So Far

 

NFV is moving at a relatively fast clip, passing many other technologies that spend more time in development and PowerPoint phases. NFV was a concept ripe for its time, where value was immediately perceived by CSPs, and the pressure from OTT competition precluded the option of doing nothing. As a result, pilot projects and first launches of NFV arrived quickly.

 

Of course, it is with these real-world deployments that the true challenges of implementation and systems integration start to appear. It is the success of NFV technology that has made it a priority, and is now revealing any weaknesses in need of a fix.

 

The good news for NFV is that, like a rocket launched into orbit; the quick pace is what allows escape velocity. Holding the pace, NFV will cross the trough quickly, and emerge as a productive technology. But this requires that the implementation challenges aren’t too great, so let’s look at them.

 

NFV’s Challenges at This Stage

 

Each quarter, the ELF meetings provide us with an excellent yardstick to measure NFV progress against. The earliest meetings revealed the high expectations ELF held for NFV, but our most recent meetings focus much more on practicalities. Our changing conversations reflect the fact that CSPs and vendors are no longer just discussing NFV, but actually deploying it.

 

Below are NFV challenges that were discussed:

 

Orchestration

 

The top challenge that emerged was the issue of Management & Orchestration (MANO). MANO specifies the handling of all cloud resources, which include the hardware, networking, storage, VMs, and VNFs (Virtualized Network Functions). MANO is how all of these elements work together seamlessly, including not just ongoing operations, but also on-boarding, service chaining, and integration with legacy and across VNF vendors.

 

In short, the problem is systems integration and managing complexity.

 

Our ELF discussions revealed that MANO is still unclear. ETSI provides a standard framework, but the companies we talked to weren’t certain whether MANO was best centralized, or distributed to the edges. Will VNF state information be stored locally at the virtual machine, at the datacenter, or centrally? One offers lower latency, but the other offers simpler management.

 

Fortunately, NFV is a big market opportunity. Many vendors are rushing in to solve the problem. The best use standards-compliant and open technologies both solve the MANO challenge, while retaining maximum cross-vendor compatibility.

 

Standards Deviance

 

The downside of deployment challenges is that, often, the quickest and easiest way for vendors to solve challenges is to provide proprietary solutions. These solutions are custom-built to patch the problem, and don’t require immediate standards-body approval. Because of the integration challenges NFV now faces, we are seeing an increase in vendor proprietary solutions filling gaps that the standards bodies did not foresee.

Historically, CSPs accepted these proprietary solutions because they were expedient. But we are sensing a different mood with NFV and SDN: CSPs are demanding open solutions, because proprietary ones defeat one of the main stated value-propositions of NFV: multi-vendor networks.

 

Vendor Lock-In

 

As noted above, CSPs want to deploy multi-vendor networks, with flexibility to insert VNFs from startups to Tier 1 providers, and have them integrate well in their networks. This offers the maximum service agility, and is the best defense against OTT threats, which are never going away.

 

But discussion at the last ELF meeting revealed ongoing fears at CSPs that, even though it appears they are using open solutions, small elements in the solutions may be taking them down the same old path to vendor lock-in. Among the solutions discussed were strong adherence to standards and lots of inter-operability testing.

 

Now, bringing it back to a Gartner curve framework, the ability of NFV to cross the Trough will be dependent on viable fixes and solutions to the challenges that emerge in the present - as NFV is deployed in live carrier networks.

 

Wrapping Up

 

This summary only scratches the surface in terms of issues discussed at our quarterly NFV Forum. Things are moving fast in NFV. With our ongoing meetings, we expect to watch the shifting NFV landscape and report on our key findings.

 

For every meeting, we try to limit the number of attendees to 20, but we’re also looking to attract fresh participants and their ideas. If you are interested in attending an upcoming quarterly meeting, please visit the Telecom Council of Silicon Valley’s website and request an invitation to participate.

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