What Carrier VPs of Operations and CMOs Think About NFV

Many of you have noticed the fact that my blog on the “missing NFV constituencies” of CIO and CFO was still missing a constituency or two.  The ones I didn’t cover are the head of operations, and the CMO, and the reason I didn’t is that I was still massing the comments I’d had from these people.  As you’ll see, both these new constituencies have a reason to be on the fence longer.  You’ll also see that both have some questions of their own, some issued held in common with other groups, and some unique ideas.

Operations people are responsible for the management of the infrastructure itself.  Some have expressed surprise that this activity is separate from “operations” in the OSS/BSS sense, and it’s not fully separated at all.  From the days of TDM, operations personnel have used some operations systems.  However, packet networks have created a world where “resource management” and “service management” can be polarized and many operators have done that.  The resource or infrastructure side, the domain of the VP of Operations (VPO, hereafter) is often a “resource” just like “craft” personnel.

The VPO has been largely disconnected from the early NFV work in most operators.  Only about 15% of lab trials ever result in anything actually getting deployed, so there’s no reason for the VPO and staff to be too excited about concepts until they’re released for field trials.  At the beginning of this year, when it was obvious that the next step for NFV would have to be a field trial, VPO staff started getting involved in NFV plans.  In some operators who had started top-down programs of transformation rather than technology-oriented bottom-up trials, VPOs were involved early on.

The big issue VPOs have expressed is a new one, but still one that by implication cuts across some of the other issues of the CIO and CFO; whether NFV can deploy at scale.  We know how to build large networks, global networks.  We know how the operations processes and costs scale with network scope.  We know how to divide networks into functional or administrative zones (metro, for example) and we know how to connect services across zonal boundaries.

The VPOs, reviewing the results of PoCs, see in most cases a collection of service-specific trials that cut across a range of infrastructure—both in technology/vendor terms and in administrative terms.  The problem this poses for them is that it doesn’t give them a handle on how generalized infrastructure would look.  OK, we know vCPE or vMI (“mobile infrastructure” in case you forgot that acronym from my earlier blog).  What does vEverything look like?  VPOs say that if we can’t answer what an at-scale NFV deployment would look like and how it would be deployed and how we’d connect services across it, they can’t certify that it would work at all much less deliver any benefits.

What has the VPO particularly concerned is that the “hottest” NFV application seems to them not to be an NFV application at all.  Virtual CPE created by hosting functional atoms in an agile edge device is not the model of NFV as it was first considered, nor is it the model that the ETSI ISG has worked on.  Many of the issues of generalized infrastructure are clearly moot if you forego generalizing by hosting customer-specific functions in customer-specific devices.  Even management is simpler because there are no multi-tenant NFVI resource pools, only slots in CPE into which you fit something.

The VPOs are among the group of operator executives who fear “the death of a thousand successes”, meaning a bunch of service-specific evolutions that don’t add up to anything systematic, infrastructure with any economy of scale, or any common and efficient operations practices and tools.  They love the notion of low-apple starts (they’d be scared to death of anything else) but they don’t see the tree yet and so they distrust the notion of “low-ness”.

CMOs have also gotten more engaged as NFV has evolved toward greater independence on service agility.   Their biggest fear is that NFV is defining a “new service” as a “new way of doing an old service”.  Most of the CMOs believe that the current network operator problem is the OTTs, who are successfully reaping new service revenues while generating unprofitable traffic for them.  They believe that new service revenues will have to come from services that are really new.

There are challenges to making this particular notion of newness workable, though.  Operators are not used to selling in the traditional sense; everyone needs basic communications services and so it’s rarely necessary to make a case for Internet access or WAN services to an enterprise.  You may have to compete for the win but you’ll not have to establish the need.  For the truly new services, CMOs acknowledge that the operators’ big problem isn’t creating the services but creating the idea of the services.  They don’t visualize unrealized demand easily, so they don’t know how to generate it.

It’s interesting to note that while CFOs and CIOs didn’t make spontaneous suggestions on how their own issues could be resolved, both the VPOs and CMOs did.  These not only help refine just what the challenges of NFV are, they may actually point toward elements of a resolution.

VPOs say that they build networks from diverse vendors, technologies, and so forth all the time.  They have service-specific elements too.  They think that trying to build a unified infrastructure where everything is based on a single common standard is unrealistic because it flies in the face of experiences they’ve had at the device level.  Instead they suggest that the key is to recognize that there will be “domains” and focus on making sure that 1) the domains interconnect at the service level, and 2) that they consume the expensive infrastructure (servers, in this case) efficiently.  To the VPOs, the biggest void in NFV technology is the lack of formal federation.

The CMOs say that the solution to truly new services is to consider NFV to be seamlessly linked with the cloud.  Applications, hosting, content, and everything else that we say is an OTT service is on its way to being a cloud service, if it’s not already there.  The CMO says that a “new” service combines several cloud components with traditional communications.  It’s less important whether communications features are migrated to virtual functions (to the cloud, in other words) than that new service features from the cloud are migrated into communications services.

I agree with the views of both these groups.  I also understand that while VPOs and CMOs might be providing real insight into how we could fix the NFV of today to fully realize its benefit potential, they’re also asking the industry to reverse itself.  My view is that the VPO concept of federation and the CMO concept of cloud integration might combine to create a lifeline for NFV.  A good federation approach could help unify PoC silos.  A cloud integration approach could frame new services based on IoT or simply allow operators to participate more effectively in current OTT services.  Together these could address, perhaps, enough issues to let operators invest in actual field trials, and give vendors time to address some of the technical issues.

This seems to me to argue that the twin pillars of NFV change I presented in an earlier blog—Intent Modeling and IoT execution—could be augmented by federation and cloud integration, and the result would be a path to NFV success.