Might 5G Be NFV’s “Killer App”?

One of the lessons of the current earnings cycle is that if you’re a network operator you probably see the profitable side of your future in almost purely mobile terms.  For the last ten years, mobile revenues have been strong where wireline has been under pressure.  Mobile infrastructure has benefitted from investment priority during that period, for the obvious reason that “I” follows “R”.  Thus, it’s not surprising that we hear a lot about mobile in general, and 5G in particular.

Hype around 5G is inevitable, in no small part because the media loves these linear generational advances—they’re so easy to write about and there’s usually so much promise in each step.  How much better 5G will be than 4G is harder to say given that many didn’t see all that much difference between 4G and 3G.  Fortunately I’m not proposing to talk about the improvement nuances, just the technology impacts and opportunities.

As I noted in a past blog, the easiest place to apply new technology is where you’re redoing things anyway.  5G doesn’t directly pull through things like SDN or NFV but it does provide a fertile growth medium for them—money.  If 5G changes network traffic or configuration in a significant way, then there’s a decent chance to rethink how networks are built and take advantage of the new ideas during the reinvestment.

For both SDN and NFV, in fact, mobile services offers the best path toward a revolutionary rate of adoption.  A massive 5G rollout (and Ericsson has almost two-dozen early-stage 5G-related deals already) would let either SDN or NFV achieve critical mass without any other drivers at all.  That has implications on the vendor space, obviously, because those vendors with natural positions in the 5G space would be better able to gain traction.

Nokia might be the poster-child for being in the right place at the right time.  The combined Nokia/Alcatel-Lucent entity is strongest in the mobile area.  Nokia got one of the six NFV solutions that could make a broad business case when they got Alcatel-Lucent.  They also got the best overall SDN product, and so if we presumed a fairly thorough new-technology-driven remake of mobile infrastructure would come out of 5G, Nokia has a great opportunity to use that remake to advance itself to the leader in NFV and in operator use of SDN.

The fly in this ointment of sublime happiness (if you’re Nokia, at any rate) is the fact that the Alcatel and Lucent parts of Alcatel-Lucent never really came together right, and adding Nokia into the mix probably didn’t grease any of the old pathways to cooperation.  There’s also the question of whether Nokia is prepared to be aggressive in promoting next-gen architectures that could very well compete with switching and routing, the two pieces of Alcatel-Lucent that were making the most money.

Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei, Fujitsu, and other major mobile-infrastructure vendors provide some or all of the things needed for mobile infrastructure virtualization.  Obviously, having experience in the space and contact with the buyers gives these vendors some advantage, but not necessarily a decisive one.

At least some vendors think the 5G shift opens the door wider than just a single vendor.  Brocade, for example, is looking at 5G evolution as an opportunity to promote its (from Connectem) vEPC strategy.  It also hopes, I think to find a place for virtual routing.  Metaswitch’s Project Clearwater has long provided a virtualized IMS.  This week, ASOCS is demonstrating their cloud RAN at MWC, and Juniper and Affirmed are partnering to address the mobile infrastructure opportunity.

So far among vendors not already selling legacy mobile infrastructure, Brocade seems to be making the most direct play for a seat at the 5G table.  They’re positioning themselves as a non-aligned solution, meaning that they don’t drag in a bunch of RAN and other infrastructure elements when the deal should really be about EPC.  The offer all of the features you’d expect from vEPC, including separation of the data and control planes, horizontal scaling of components, agile deployment to locations where traffic patterns make sense, and so forth.

A fully virtualized 5G infrastructure makes a lot of sense, particularly if the operators in a given market area are under pressure to support roaming at little or no premium or if the operator has aspirations to support MVNOs or IoT.  It would also make sense in mixed mobile/CDN applications, in my view.  Given all these positive things, it’s tempting to see 5G mobile infrastructure as the Big Idea that carries through both SDN and NFV, and it may.  Or not.

It seems almost inevitable that cloud-hosting virtualized components of mobile infrastructure will in fact be part of 5G deployment, but while the cloud is a clear winner, SDN and NFV are more problematic.  The key vendors all have reasons not to make their offerings too dependent on either of these new technologies.  Do you want to force operators to trash current switching/routing?  Even if you don’t make the gear, the additional cost of writing it down will hurt your business case.  Do you want to demand NFV as the means of deploying and scaling when truth be told all the vendors of virtual mobile infrastructure can deploy without it?

This isn’t just a challenge for SDN or NFV proponents to face.  While you might not need either SDN or NFV to build 5G mobile infrastructure, you’ll darn sure reach a point where you wish you had a good implementation of them both.  This is a classic case of having to balance what you need in the future with what you have to displace or risk in the present.  If we make 5G networks too much like 4G, we’re all too likely to end up with a different RAN and not much different elsewhere, including the services to the users.

If 5G infrastructure is the key opportunity then it may promote more, and more constructive, populism in the NFV and SDN spaces.  Nobody thinks that mobile infrastructure is a single function, and yet most providers of SDN or NFV don’t have full-spectrum mobile stories.  That’s why Juniper aligned with Affirmed, and why Brocade has its own partner program built around its mobile story.  The challenge for these smaller players is that we’ve had NFV partnerships from the first and most of them are just a collection of vendors chanting “NFV!” in the direction of the nearest reporter.  Substantive partnership may be needed to provide a full solution, and that partnership may have to be built around a critical-mass central vendor to provide credibility.

MWC always generates a lot of mobile buzz, and so you could argue that this 5G stuff will pass and something else will end up leading the SDN/NFV charge in a couple weeks.  I don’t think so; remember that I’ve said for a year now that mobile infrastructure was one of the few credible paths to a full NFV deployment.  This is where the bucks will go, and so this is where changes in how they’re spent will be easiest to justify.  What we should be asking now is whether vendors who don’t have mobile assets to position but do have complete NFV solutions will have to think more about how they fit into the mobile deployment of the future, or risk being devalued.