This Industry Viewpoint was written by Francois Locoh-Donou, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Ciena
It took a long time, but the Internet of Things era is here, at last. Gartner predicts something in the vicinity of 6 billion things will connect to the network in 2016, with that set to balloon to 20.8 billion by 2020, or nearly three things for every person alive on the planet today. But for a long time it was merely a concept, with the term being discussed as far back as 2002 and revolving around RFID tags, before evolving into the ubiquitous network connectivity-based concept it is today.
But as we focus on connected “things”, there is a revolution going on behind the scenes which promises to reduce, rather ironically, the amount of things (e.g. hardware) we actually use; the difference being that the greater public rarely sees these devices unlike the connected and conspicuous IoT equivalents.
I recently spoke on a panel at the Mobile World Congress, and upon reflection of the discussion one thing is clear: the evolution of Network Functions Virtualization has been quicker to arrive and is primed to drive a networking revolution.
Remember, NFV was merely a hypothesis three years ago. It was floated by service providers that wanted to leverage cloud technologies and commercial off-the-shelf hardware to deploy networking functions. But at NFV's inception, there was no clear path to actually realizing the use-cases being asked, no common understanding of the software framework required, and no industry-wide awareness of how to build a system that was based on the premise of NFV.
But NFV has progressed tremendously on many fronts over the last three years. Service providers have conducted countless Proof of Concepts, both internally as well as with vendors. Those vendors have taken on and solved many of the technical challenges that were identified during the Proof of Concept phase, and some commercial solutions are starting to move into deployment worldwide.
In fact, use cases now span beyond the oft-cited vRouter and vFirewall deployments to more fixed enterprise offerings, such as virtualized WAN optimization solutions; residential offerings such as cloud DVR; and mobile access transformation with technologies such as smart cells.
Those deployments are merely the first stages of the NFV revolution manifested, but the benefits are already more far-reaching than initially envisioned. Early conversations were focused on CapEx optimization or OpEx reduction. Now fixed and mobile operators are motivated by the opportunity to offer innovative new services, deliver them faster and with lower investment risk, and to leverage their presence to offer on-demand proximity-based applications.
While NFV can certainly be used to optimize the delivery of existing services, the more compelling value of NFV is that is enables “network” and “applications” on demand. NFV will help make the network more intelligent and programmable so that we will no longer have to think about physically connecting devices to or even building out networks. This enables service providers to offer traditional networking services as “dynamically orderable” and “consumable” applications.
Take CenturyLink for a prominent example of a service provider making the NFV business case powerful, especially from the perspective of revenue growth and market share capture as key organizational objectives. Many have heard of CenturyLink’s efforts to virtualize their infrastructure and create a “Programmable Services Backbone”: one of the benefits derived is to drive down the cost of value-added Enterprise Services through virtualization to the point where it would be profitable to offer those same services to small-to-medium businesses.
This effectively opens up a new market for CenturyLink. CenturyLink’s new service delivery design allows them to offer these value added services to the SMB market. Those key services include vRouter, vFirewall, vWAN Optimization, and more.
Additionally, the IoT era will be further fuelled by Virtualization. Billions of devices are going to need connectivity, typically over a mobile/and or fixed infrastructure, so location-based services will become increasingly prevalent – and require a dynamic application and networking infrastructure to be realized.
This is where NFV and SDN come in, but they represent only part of the puzzle. And let’s face it: the vendor community hasn’t made it easy for service providers to transform to a software-defined and virtualized design. Hardware systems are still controlled by individual Network Management System platforms and in order to create new end-to-end virtualized services many different domains (NMS, WAN SDN and Data Center) need to come together.
In order to abstract the complexity of this, Layer 3 services must be automated across IP routed infrastructure, which will help service providers accelerate their service delivery time from months to days. Then, on top of that, NFV-based virtualized services can be layered as a value-add revenue engine. To do this, domains are stitched together and through a flexible and programmable service orchestrator.
Today, networks are inflexible; consumption of services on a real-time, on-demand basis is difficult at best. But handing the reins to software and virtualized networking functions offer service providers an opportunity to finally make the network flexible. Keeping the network open and programmable through orchestration is the key to unlocking its potential.
There’s an old adage that says “great design is invisible or transparent”, and when you achieve this, it makes a new technology/product so much easier to consume, which in turn accelerates usage. We are on the verge of our network designs becoming virtually invisible, and new services are beginning to evolve that will make our networks and everything on them, including IoT, easier to consume than anyone ever fathomed.
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