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30 September 2019

GSMA-backed group to drive NFVi standard announces first release

In July, an important step forward was taken to bring old-style and new communities together in enhancing the NFV platform. This was a collaboration between the most traditional of telco alliances, the GSMA, and the main open source player in telecoms, the Linux Foundation and its Networking Fund (LFN- umbrella for many projects including ORAN Alliance).

The new partnership was labelled the Common NFVi Telco Taskforce (CNTT) and set itself the aim of defining common NFV infrastructure (NFVi) reference architectures which will be submitted to LFN for testing and verification via its OPNFV (Open Platform for NFV) verification program (OVP).

Three months on, the CNTT has announced its first data release, called Botrange, including the common reference model and the first reference architecture. It is available via the group’s GitHub repository and also includes operator requirements, an outline of the initial specifications, and an overview of the guiding principles.

Once the reference models and architectures are implemented and tested to the OPNFV specifications, the group expects commercial products will emerge, but these will go through deeper levels virtual network function (VNF) and NFVi compliance testing. The initial NFVi certification, which will establish a baseline for compliance, is expected to be available in April.

The alliance was first mooted at the Open Networking Summit in San Jose, California in April, and 10 large telcos expressed support, explaining they needed to have “more control” of how an NFVi standard evolved. Those operators were AT&T, Bell Canada, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, Reliance Jio, Orange, SK Telecom, Telstra, Verizon and Vodafone.

The aim of the new project is eventually to support three NFVi architectures – for network-intensive applications, compute-intensive applications and ‘nominal cases’ (general workloads including non-specialized IoT). The architectures will be defined by GSMA, which hosts the project, and published by OPNFV.

Vendors will certify their virtual network functions (VNFs) against the target architectures through the OVP process and supporting telcos will then be able to mandate OPNFV-certified VNFs in their networks, and so drive interoperability and the improved economics of a multivendor, open platform.

This aims to address one of the biggest barriers in the way of mass-scale virtualization, that each operator currently has a slightly different NFVi implementation. That makes it hard to use VNFs from multiple vendors in the same platform, and it adds to suppliers’ cost and time to market as they have to test their software individually for each telco.

The scale of the problem is shown in the OPNFV itself. Conceived by the Linux Foundation to create a common “reference NFV platform to accelerate the transformation of enterprise and service provider networks”, in fact many companies have contributed their own variants and it has ended up with about 60 NFVi configurations, a far cry from the three envisaged by CNTT.

This initial CNTT release is based on OpenStack and virtual machines, an architecture which leading operators are already starting to leave behind in favor of planning for more agile containers and microservices. Rabi Abdel, a lead NFV/SDN architect at Vodafone, said that containers would be the next area of focus.

He wrote on the CNTT website that the group was working closely with the telco user group within another of the Linux Foundation’s umbrella groups, the Cloud-Native Computing Foundation. This cooperation was “to make sure we address the requirements and influence the development of the container technologies”.

The work on containers will cover several aspects of the technology, including:

  • Kubernetes-based cloud-native stacks
  • Container-based network functions’ validation requirements
  • compliance and verification testing
  • study of a potential lifecycle approach for NFVi.
  • study of a “transitional reference architecture for a hybrid model of virtual machine and containerization to allow a smooth migration from VM to full containerization within telco’s environment without having to go through a painful flash cutover”.

Talking about CNTT earlier in the year, Arpit Joshipura, general manager for networking, automation, edge and IoT at the Linux Foundation, explained that LFN will bring the software, automation, tools, and infrastructure testing “that will actually set up the framework to implement the common NFVi”. Its members will also offer up the necessary upstream and downstream code including virtual infrastructure managers (VIMs), ONAP and VNFs “to create a complete end-to-end automated test system”.

“Having an NFVi framework was a great first step but bringing the community of major carriers together in a neutral governance like the Linux Foundation was required,” he said in an interview.

The initiative is important for bringing the very different traditions of MNOs and of the open cloud world closer together. The gulf between the two communities has slowed progress in several key areas of virtualization, particularly the management and orchestration (MANO) of all those virtualized components and functions. The split between ONAP, the Linux Foundation would-be standard for MANO, and ETSI’s Open Source MANO (OSM) remains unresolved despite some steps towards greater cooperation between the two groups.

However, the CNTT is not all good news for anyone dreaming of a fully open, cloud-style ecosystem breaking down the barriers around the telecoms network. The participation of the GSMA is a recognition that its members are keen to embrace open processes in order to drive down costs and accelerate innovation. But it could just have signed up to support an initiative run by the LFN. Instead, the CNTT is explicitly an attempt to ensure that the large operators tap into the benefits of an open platform, but also retain full control of its direction.