By George Debbo, GD Telecom, Chairman of the SDN & Network Virtualisation stream at AfricaCom 2015
In October 2012 a group of Tier 1 Operators from Europe, North America and Asia got together at a Conference in Darmstadt Germany to discuss and ultimately announce a new industry initiative on Network Functions Virtualization (NFV). The discussion was prompted by the fact that the group clearly felt that the current method of deploying networks, which involves installing physically made-for-purpose boxes, had to change because of the enormous pressures that were being applied to the industry. These pressures included the continual threat from Over the Top (OTT) service providers, as well as the pressure to reduce costs and significantly increase agility and speed by which services are created and deployed.
The concept of virtualization was drawn from what had already been used in the IT industry for a number of years, and included discussion on software defined networking (SDN) and OpenFlow. The discussions resulted in the creation and publication of a White Paper, as well as the formulation of an ETSI Industry Study Group (ISG) in November 2012.
NFV involves de-coupling the associated network function from its proprietary hardware, and running this function as software on a server. Thus network functions, which today are provided on made-for-purpose hardware, can now run as software over generic pieces of hardware, such as off-the-shelf layer 2 switches and routers.
SDN, which is a complimentary technology to NFV, separates the control plane from the physical forwarding plane, thus allowing network control to become directly programmable and the underlying infrastructure to be abstracted for applications and network services.
Since the formation of the ETSI ISG in November 2012 there has been a groundswell of activity within the industry around SDN &NFV, both within operators and vendors, but predominantly within North America and Europe. A number of North American and European operators and service providers have indicated their intentions and plans to virtualize large portions of their network. An example is AT&T who have developed their Domain 2.0 Program, which has the intention to virtualize and control more than 75% of their network by 2020 using a software driven architecture.
The activity within the ETSI ISG has resulted in the following deliverables:
- The release of 17 specifications and standards
- The formulation of a list of NFV Use Cases
- A number of Proof of Concepts being run around the world, an example of which was Spain’s Telefonica who demonstrated an end-to-end advanced and multi-media implementation of the ETSI NFV architecture, with intelligent orchestration of resources, at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
What are the benefits for African Operators? Generally the business and network operation within African Operators is characterized by the following:
- Low coverage and penetration but with enormous capacity demands
- A limited skills base with respect to technical personnel
- Auxiliary infrastructure (such as grid power and environmental facilities) not supportive of deploying sophisticated and intelligent telecommunication systems, especially in the rural areas.
- As functionality is now performed in software, this can be deployed in areas were the auxiliary infrastructure is available and maintained, and more importantly in areas were skilled personnel are available such as cities or major towns.
- Again, as functionality is now performed in software the process required to dynamically ramp up capacity is much simpler and quicker, thus allowing operators to easily respond to demand which is difficult to predict.
- Ultimately the costs (both opex and capex) will come down due to the economies of scale associated with using off-the-shelf hardware (such as layer 2 routers and switches) as well as the use of open interfaces and standards associated with SDN &NFV.
NFV also supports the concept of multi-version and multi-tenancy which allows the use of a single platform for different applications, users and tenants. Such an ability allows operators to share resources across services and across different customers.