The drive towards the dream of network virtualization has gained momentum at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2016 with 23 Telcos and technology vendors signing up to create a multi-vendor open source software stack for service creation. These firms have joined the Open Source MANO (OSM) Community under the umbrella of ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute), whose current main focus is to develop standards for NFV (Network Functions Virtualization) and promote interoperability. OSM was founded by Telefónica, BT, Canonical, Intel, Mirantis, RIFT.io, Telekom Austria Group, and Telenor, along with vendors including Benu Networks, Brocade, Comptel, Dell, Indra, Korea Telecom, Metaswitch, RADWare, Red Hat, Sandvine, SK Telecom, Sprint, Telmex, xFlow and 6WIND.
NFV is sometimes confused with SDN (Software Defined Networking), although the latter is further down the track. The main difference is that SDN is about separating control of higher level network control from forwarding functions, while NFV aims to virtualize the whole lot onto commodity standard high volume servers, switches and storage systems, which could be located in datacenters, network nodes and even on customer premises, according to the scale and function.
SDN was developed by enterprises seeking to make campus level network devices programmable so that software did not need to be changed so often, and controllable from a central point. NFV ironically arose from the enterprise as well but was developed by Telcos with the aim of accelerating and reducing the cost of new network service development through use of IT virtualization technologies already proven in the data center. So the overlap arises from their common origins in the data center, but paradoxically although NFV sought to exploit existing technologies it has actually proved to be particularly challenging because of the changes needed to reapply them in Telco environments.
For this reason, ETSI saw the need for the spin off OSM project. There was a realization that rigorous interoperability testing around a well-defined open source software stack applied to established use cases was necessary to achieve the original NFV vision of turning the carrier network into a data center where virtualization can be employed to exploit commodity hardware. It had become clear that many of the new carrier-grade virtual services could only be developed through a varied ecosystem of technology vendors.
The OSM project demonstration at MWC 2016 featured a complex operator use-case, but showed that through proper design principles, even an early initial implementation of OSM can be adopted to deploy a high-performance inter-site IP router network. This provides the foundation for NFV applications and at this demonstration was applied to VoIP (Voice over IP). According to OSM, the entire infrastructure was deployed and configured in minutes using the OSM stack, relying on models already developed under ETSI. This avoids the need for expensive and time-consuming customization for separate use cases at the NFV level, or within an operator’s OSS, which is an essential requirement.
The demonstration showed how a high level control module called the OSM orchestrator could manage diverse clouds and instantaneously deploy, connect and configure the combined NFV service. This is a significant step forward because end-to-end service orchestration is the key to achieving carrier level NFV, as well as for enabling multiple use cases. It shows that multi-vendor NFV systems can interoperate successfully, which is essential for unleashing the full value of NFV service automation for operators and achieving the goal of drastically lower network operating expenses. Equally important is the greater service agility.
But there is still some way to go. For NFV to succeed it is must be widely deployed and enjoy universal industry support. This means OSM must gain further traction. There are also some remaining technical and deployment challenges, such as ensuring that Telco grade SLAs (Service Level Agreements) are faithfully conveyed within the NFV architecture. These challenges require cooperation rather than any changes to the underlying standards. ETSI calls for a higher degree of openness and transparency between participants including integrators, operators, technology providers and academia to make NFV work.