Can the Drivers of Carrier Cloud Converge on a Common Cloud Vision?

One of the issues that should be driving the fall operator planning cycle, carrier cloud, isn’t making a really strong appearance so far.  Those of you who’ve read my blog on what is likely to be a big planning focus no doubt saw that carrier cloud wasn’t on the list.  Many would find this a surprise, considering that by 2030 we’ll likely add over one hundred thousand data centers to support it, most at the edge.  I was surprised too, enough to ask for a bit more information.  Here’s what’s going on.

The key point holding back carrier cloud is a clear, achievable, driving application.  Operators have become very antsy about the field-of-dreams approach to new services.  Before they build out infrastructure like carrier cloud, they want to understand exactly what they can expect to drive ROI, and get at least a good idea of what they’ll earn on their investment.  There are six drivers of carrier cloud, as I’ve noted before, and while operators generally understand what they are, they’re not yet able to size up the opportunity for any of them.

Two of the six drivers for carrier cloud were on the hot-button list for the fall.  One was NFV and the other was 5G, but these account for only 5% and 16% of carrier cloud incentive, respectively, through 2020.  The majority, more than three-quarters, falls to applications not on the advance planning radar.  The biggest driver available in that timeframe is the virtualization of video and advertising features for ad and video personalization and delivery.  It accounts for about half the total opportunity for the near term.  Why is this driver not being considered, even prioritized, in the fall cycle?  Several reasons, and none easy to justify or fix.

First, operators have been slow to get into advertising.  Most who have moved have done so by purchasing somebody who had an ad platform (Verizon and both AOL and Yahoo, for example).  As a result, there’s been less focus on just how the ad space should be handled in infrastructure (meaning carrier cloud) terms.  Operators who have tried to move their own approach here (mostly outside the US) have found it very difficult to get the right people onboard and to drive their needs through a connection-services-biased management team.

The second factor is that operators have tended to see video delivery in terms of using caching to conserve network capacity.  These systems have been driven from the network side rather than from the opportunity side, and they’ve ignored issues like socialization and personalization.  Operators see the latter as being linked more to video portals, which (so far) they’ve either pushed into the web-and-advertising space just noted here, covered in their IPTV OTT service plans, or have not been particularly hot about at all.

What these points add up to is a dispersal of responsibility for key aspects of our demand driver, and a lack of a cohesive set of requirements and opportunities links to infrastructure behavior.  In short, people aren’t working together on the issues and can’t align what’s needed with a specific plan to provide it.

This explains, at least at a high level, why the main carrier cloud driver isn’t in the picture for the fall cycle.  What about the two that are?  Could they take up the slack?

The SDN-and-NFV-drives-change approach, as I’ve already noted in the referenced blog, hasn’t really delivered much in the way of commitment from senior management.  The biggest problem is that neither technology has been linked to an opportunity with a credible scope of opportunity and infrastructure.  SDN today is primarily either a data center evolution toward white-box devices, or a policy management enhancement to legacy switches and (mostly) routers.  NFV today is primarily virtual CPE hosted not in the cloud but on a small edge box at the service demarcation point.  It’s hard to see how these could change the world.

What SDN and NFV prove is the difficulty in balancing risk and reward for technology shifts.  For these technologies to bring about massive change in the bottom line, they have to create massive impact, which means touching a lot of services and infrastructure.  That creates massive risk, which leads operators to dabble their toes in the space with very limited trials and tests.  Those, because they are very limited, don’t prove out the opportunity or technology at scale.  By the time we get a convincing model of SDN and NFV that has the scope to do something, carrier cloud deployment will have been carried forward by something else, and SDN/NFV will just ride along.

5G is even more complicated.  Here we have the classic “There’s a lot you can do with a widget” problem; that may be true but it doesn’t address the question of how likely it is you’d want to do one of those things, or how profitable it would be to do it.  In many ways, 5G is just a separate infrastructure justification problem on top of carrier cloud.  We have to figure out just how it’s going to be useful, then deploy it, and only then see what parts of its utility bear on a justification for carrier cloud.

Nobody doubts that 5G spectrum and the RAN are useful, but it’s far from clear that either would have any impact on carrier cloud.  In fact, it’s far from clear what positive benefits would come from the additional 5G elements, including network slicing.  Remember, there’s a difference between “utility” (I can find something to do with it) and “justification” (I gain enough to proactively adopt it).

An Ixia survey cited by SDxCentral says that carrier cloud plans are rooted in NFV.  Actually the data cited doesn’t seem to show that to me.  The cited drivers for 5G are quite vague, as disconnected from explicit benefits as any I’ve heard.  “Flexible and scalable network” is the top one.  What does that mean and how much return does it generate?  My point is that the survey doesn’t show clear drivers, only abstract stuff that’s hard to quantify.

That’s consistent with what operators have told me.  In fact, 5G planning focus is more on trying to nail down actual, quantifiable, actionable, benefits than about driving anything in particular forward.  Don’t get me wrong; everything in 5G has potential value, has circumstances that would make a critical contribution to operators.  How much of that potential is real is very difficult to say, which is what’s giving operators so much grief.

What exactly is all that rooting of 5G in NFV?  The article quotes an Ixia executive as follows: “You are going to deploy the 5G core in an NFV-type model. There’s no doubt it will all be virtualized.”  Well, gosh, everything virtualized isn’t necessarily NFV.  So, is this an attempt by a vendor (who has an NFV strategy) to get into the 5G story?  You decide.

It all circles back to the notion of that field of dreams.  In order for the drivers of carrier cloud to operate effectively, they all have to drive things to the same place.  We need to have a common cloud model for the network of the future, because we’re not going to build one for every possible demand source.  The difficulties for the moment lie less in making the drivers real in an ROI sense, but in making the drivers credible enough to motivate planners to look for a single cloud solution that can address them all.  That’s what’s missing today, and sadly I don’t see the fall planning cycle providing it.