This Industry Viewpoint was authored by Steve Alexander, Ciena Chief Technology Officer
Lessons learned from global virtualized edge deployments
The virtualization of network functions has become a top priority for service providers and enterprises alike. Research firm Technology Business Research, for example, predicts that mainstream adoption of network virtualization will occur between 2021 and 2022.
It’s no wonder. The benefits of virtualized networks are clear and include increased agility, simplicity and reliability, as well as reduced costs and better preparedness for the future through quicker innovation cycles—benefits that have become more relevant in the current environment.
In addition to offering virtualized business networking services, network operators are looking to evolve their existing infrastructure to support new applications and new technology implementations—with work and learn from home, telemedicine, and continuing the deployment of 5G technologies being the primary use cases.
For service providers planning their network virtualization strategy, here are a few key lessons learned through direct, real-world global deployments that will help along the journey.
You’re only as agile as your operational model
Software-based virtualized networks are inherently more flexible and agile than legacy hardware-based networks.
That said, going from a hardware-based model to a software-based model is a big step that requires change across a service provider’s operational model, infrastructure, skill sets, and culture. It entails VNF onboarding and integration, successfully chaining the services of multiple VNFs, and adopting a new approach to lifecycle management.
Maintenance, version control, update, and patch procedures for VNF-based services need to be fully defined and tested. This naturally will involve both the physical infrastructure supporting the VNFs as well as the virtual functions themselves and their associated management and control functions. It also entails a new commercial business model and associated pricing for virtualized network services.
To realize the full benefits of network virtualization, agility needs to be a foundational principle that is built in from the planning stages through design, operations, and the entire VNF lifecycle.
Be open with yourself and your business customers
When it comes to building out an agile virtualization strategy, supporting a vast number of VNFs, such as virtual routers, SD-WANs, virtual firewalls, encryptors, and so forth, from multiple vendors is crucial, both for the service provider and their business customers.
It’s widely accepted that an open, standards-based approach achieves maximum flexibility and allows service providers and businesses to meet their business requirements and objectives, while reducing risk associated with vendor lock-in by leveraging a broader and more secure vendor supply chain. It also means service providers can better align with customer expectations and preferred VNF vendors.
The challenge is that, despite standardization efforts, not all VNFs work well together. And not all “open” systems are created equally. We’ve found, for example, that some VNFs can be exceptionally greedy, collecting more of their fair share of hardware and network resources to optimize their own performance, at the expense of other VNFs. When chaining VNFs, the problem can be compounded.
Building on an open approach that supports a wide range of competing VNFs greatly reduces this issue, while rigorous interoperability testing validates how each new VNF works with other VNFs and across the network.
Remove complexity through automation
Virtualized networks can reduce operational complexity, but they do not remove all complexity when you consider that you may have multiple VNFs or VNF service chains as well as legacy hardware-based functions that must interoperate. Having the ability to manage across any mix of physical and virtual service devices with a single pane-of-glass is highly desirable. With high level automation tools, it is even possible to see your own network along with your enterprise customers’ networks. Each virtualized network function has its own tools that can be programmed and automated to deliver service end to end.
Automated service orchestration allows service providers to simply and rapidly define, create, deploy, and automate the end-to-end delivery of services. Since service providers can’t virtualize their entire network all at once, automating service orchestration across any mix of physical and virtual domains—Cloud, WAN, NFV, Ethernet, IP, MPLS, 5G—is critical to simplify management, abstracting away network complexity.
Once VNFs are deployed, automated service assurance and analytics provides visibility into ongoing performance and service levels, ensures VNFs are working properly and working together, and even anticipates potential events before affecting customers.
How’s that for agile?
Trust in a field-proven expert to streamline your journey
The transition from an appliance-based network edge implementation to open, software-based virtualization brings enormous economic and strategic benefits for network operators. However, the challenges associated cannot be undervalued. Correctly selecting and integrating all the different solutions components in a myriad of options and vendors will heavily depend on working with a business partner with real in-field experience in deploying and operating complex network virtualization projects.
A virtualized network is much more than installing software in servers. It consists of associating multiple vendor VFNs with the needed testing, deployment practices, integration, chaining, and lifecycle management with high-level network automation and services assurance to deliver the expected outcomes.
The capacity to successfully implement a network virtualization strategy will impact the network operator’s ability to compete and cannot be a trial-and-error process.
Network virtualization is an inevitable and worthwhile evolution. The technology and the industry’s understanding of the challenges of making the transition have come a long way. Learn from others who have paved the way, while maintaining a laser-like focus on agility, openness and simplicity throughout. By doing so, service providers will enjoy a smoother transition, a stronger business, and customers that appreciate them even more.
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