A Look at an Operator’s NFV Position

I had an interesting discussion late last week with a true thought leader in the service provider networking space.  Not a VP but a senior technical person, this individual is involved in a wide range of both SDN and NFV activities for his company, and also involved with other operators in their own efforts.  It was interesting to hear the latest in our “revolutionary” network technologies from someone inside, and I’ll spend a couple blogs recounting the most important points, first for NFV and then for SDN.  I’ve changed a few unimportant points here for confidentiality reasons.

According to my contact, his company is certain to start deploying some “real NFV field trials” and also early customer offerings in 2015 and very likely to be doing something at the field trial level in late 2014.  However, it’s interesting to note that the provider he represents is taking a kind of “NFV by the layers” approach, and perhaps even more interesting to know why.

Early NFV initiatives for the operator are focused on service chaining applications aimed at virtual CPE, with the next priority being metro/mobile and content.  Service chaining is considered a “low apple” NFV opportunity not only because it involves fairly simple technologies, but also because the customer value proposition is simple and the provider’s costs can be made to scale reasonably well.  It can also prove out NFV orchestration.

The service chaining application for the business side is looking at two questions; whether you can really build a strong user value proposition for self-provisioned access-edge service features and whether the best model for the application would be one where a custom box hosts the features on the customer premises, or where a cloud data center hosted them.  The reason for this particular focus is that the provider does not believe that NFV management is anywhere near mature enough to secure a significant improvement in operations efficiency so service agility would have to be the primary driver.

The challenge on the demand side is a debate over whether business users would buy edge services beyond the obvious firewall and other security services if they were offered.  An example of such a service is DHCP per branch, which could at least let branch offices run local network applications if they lose access to a corporate VPN.  Similarly, having some form of local DNS could be helpful where there are branch servers.  Other services might include facilities monitoring, virus scanning, and local network and systems management.

There’s an internal debate on the credibility of on-demand portals.  Some provider sales personnel point out that buyers have not been beating the doors down for these services, but research seems to suggest that may be because they’re not inclined to be thinking about what they might buy were it offered; it’s not offered today and so they don’t have any reason to evaluate the benefit.  There’s also a question of how much these services would have to be integrated with centralized IT support to sell them to larger enterprises, who are the easiest sales targets because of the revenue potential.

On the residential side, the provider is really interested in how “Internet of Things” awareness driven by home control initiatives from players like Apple might open the chances for a home monitoring application.  The reason is that this operator has concluded that residential gateway applications are not a good service chaining opportunity; the devices now used are inexpensive and typically installed for a long period and central hosting would be mandatory if the goal was to replace customer-prem equipment.  If home control could be sold and made credible on a large enough scale and with a high enough level of feature sophistication, could it justify the application?

The next layer of interest for this operator is the management piece.  As I’ve noted, the operator doesn’t think the NFV management story is baked at this point, and they’re not sure how much could be gained in efficiency under a full implementation.  If NFV practices could improve overall management efficiency by 15% or more, then it would be fairly easy to justify using NFV MANO even to operationalize legacy components, but nobody is offering much of a story in that area yet and this operator won’t have an NFV deployment of enough scale to test management practices unless/until service chaining is deployed for both residential and business trials.  My contact is hoping to see NFV management advances that would let them test MANO more broadly than for pure VNFs but isn’t hopeful.  That means the second layer of NFV wouldn’t get wrung out until 2015.

The issue of breadth of MANO also applies in the third layer of NFV testing, which is the way in which NFV might interwork with SDN.  Here the primary area of interest is the metro/mobile network where EPC and CDN at the “logical network” level combine with agile optics and aggregation networks at the physical level.  The issue for the operator in this case has been a lack of clarity on how SDN and NFV interwork, something that they’ve pressed with both the ONF and the NFV ISG.

The particular area of concern is the management intersection.  NFV management, you’ll recall, is something this operator thinks is fairly immature, and they have a similar view on SDN management.  How the two could be combined is the function of two unbounded variables, as they say, and yet somehow there has to be a solution because the most obvious application of both SDN and NFV is the metro intersection of mobile EPC and CDN.  The operator would like to run a trial in this space in 2015 but so far is having issues defining who to work with.

This operator’s view of NFV justification is simple.  The “capex reduction” model offers them limited benefits, to the point that they wonder whether feature-agile CPE and portal-based service chaining would be a better deal.  They are interested in the service agility justification for NFV but they’re not sure whether the buyers really have enough agile demand to justify agile supply.  They are very interested in management/operations efficiency but they don’t think anyone is telling that story thoroughly.

This detailed look at NFV progress seems to show the same problem my survey earlier this year showed.  Operators are still grappling to size the business benefits of NFV, and part of that grappling is simply figuring out what benefits are actually out there.  We are definitely solving NFV problems, answering NFV questions, in early trials.  We’re just not attacking the big ones yet, and until we do we can’t judge just how far NFV can go and what it can do.