As more and more customers seek to take advantage of cloud-based services for functions including real-time voice, video and unified communications, service providers are making moves to change the way they deliver those services by migrating their own networks to more virtual formats.
The move makes sense and brings benefits for all concerned. Customers no longer need to have as much equipment on their premises, shifting it instead to the service provider’s cloud. That’s a benefit to both the customer and the service provider, which no longer has the expense of shipping equipment to the customer. But that’s just the beginning for the service providers, as the deeper they get into virtual services, they see benefits including automated delivery and orchestration of services.
NFV: Driving change in service provider networks
What’s making all this possible is network functions virtualization (NFV) technology. With NFV, network functions that once required dedicated hardware running specialized software can instead be delivered by software running on top of a virtual server in the service provider’s data center or point of presence (POP). Over time, providers add an orchestration function that enables automated delivery of services to customers, such as through self-service portals – even when those services must span several provider POPs.
Once you get to network wide virtual orchestration, it’s easy to see how NFV technology will dramatically lower operating costs for service providers. Whether they pass those savings on to customers remains to be seen, but it seems likely that competitive pressure will force that issue.
“Service providers are looking to transform their networks, of course to lower network costs, but more importantly to provide services more quickly and easily to their customers – that’s the driving factor here,” says Mykola Konrad, VP of Product Management and Marketing for Sonus Networks. Sonus develops session border controller (SBC) and security applications and is seeing an uptick in interest among its service provider customers in its virtual SBCs. “They’re gradually virtualizing their networks and moving from the world of the last 20 to 30 years where they had to buy specialized hardware to bring applications to customers.”
Related: Download Session Border Controllers for Dummies
Under the old model, each time a service provider offers a new service, it means putting in new hardware in its own POP and, often, at the customer site. “They have to provision and maintain that hardware as well as the software on top of it,” Konrad says. “It’s a relatively slow process and every time you want to do something new, you have to go through it again.”
With NFV, service providers can far more quickly spin up new applications by running them on a hypervisor on top of any server; no purpose-built hardware is required.
NFV for Service Provider: Getting There From Here
That doesn’t mean service providers are going to rip out all of their tried and true infrastructure overnight, however. Rather, Konrad sees them taking a more gradual approach.
“There are a few ways we’ve seen providers approach this. One is you pick a geographic area, a specific POP, and virtualize that,” he says. “Or pick a network element like an SBC and start virtualizing that element of the network.”
Say a service provider is providing SIP trunking to 10,000 separate customers. Today that means shipping an SBC as customer premise equipment (CPE) to each site and turning it up. In the new world of SBC-as-a-Service (SBCaaS), as additional customers come on board the provider could begin offering services from a virtual SBC sitting on a hypervisor in a POP, and gradually migrate existing customers from the hardware-based SBC CPE to the virtual instance.
A potential next step is to have SBCaaS at different POPs around the country. Once the provider reaches critical mass, it can add orchestration software. As a customer requests SBCaaS, perhaps using a self-service portal, the orchestration software processes the request and implements the service – whether for a single site or multiple sites served by different POPs.
“Once you get to that kind of fully automated, orchestrated network, it lowers costs and enables the provider to bring up services more quickly,” Konrad says.
That kind of offering is a win both for the service providers and customers, who no longer have equipment on their premises that needs to be managed. Plus, they get services installed far more quickly – minutes as compared to days or weeks. For service providers it reduces costs and increases agility, both when adding new services or when customers cancel service; their service can easily be allocated to other customers.
And the SBCaaS is just one example of the sorts of services providers may offer, although Konrad notes it’s a good one to start with for providers. Longer term, the NFV strategy can apply to nearly any sort of network application, including IMS, video and other unified communications applications.