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Soft walls of software…just as hard

Mobile broadband is much loved by all. Just can’t get enough of Netflix and YouTube. Then there are the things we all depend on in our daily lives (e.g. refrigerators, cars, microwave ovens …). Specifically we are referring to the Internet of Things (IoT). More and more things are getting connected (which in turn makes them “smart data emitters.”) Frequently cited is that there are 1.5 trillion things on the planet that could have an IP address. Only 15 billion of these are believed to be connected to the Internet today. In 2020, that number is expected to go up to 50 billion connected devices per Cisco. A huge number in and of itself. But still plenty of scope for further growth.

That network traffic is likely to skyrocket is therefore an understatement. One of the major mobile carriers is reported to have experienced 100,000% growth in wireless traffic between 2007 and 2014. How do the mobile carriers keep up? Current networks are clearly likely to give up in the face of this unrelenting traffic growth. Radical solutions are necessary. Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) appears to be one of the places where the industry has found an answer. Telcos are actively looking into NFV adoption today. Cloud service providers will probably be next, with enterprises likely to be the last to the NFV dance.

Essentially NFV is about replacing specialized, custom boxes with software (Virtual Network Functions or VNFs) that can run on standard, commercial servers under a hypervisor. As in many other areas, this is yet another example of a “hard” offering that is turning “soft.” Software Defined Networking (SDN) is part of the solution. Though NFV appears to be holding out more immediate possibilities. Despite SDN having come first and NFV later, NFV has been the first to take off. SDN will possibly need more time.

Most certainly NFV is a fundamental shift. We are talking about software-based routers, switches, and middleboxes that could simply be downloaded, installed, and used. It appears that telcos were able to force this change on the vendors. For the current, “entrenched” players, NFV represents a huge impact to the P&Ls so they must have definitely needed some cajoling and coaxing to come along. Again the telcos clearly have the buying power to make it happen.  Possibilities seem immense. Someday perhaps mobile networks could be instantiated and run in the cloud anytime, on demand, by just about any one.

So this is definitely causing upheavals in the vendor world. Conceivable it is that at some time in the future we should see the number of suppliers of VNFs start to grow rapidly. After all it is now just software. Any good developer should be able to build it. And there is an army of developers out there: Asia, Europe, Latin America, you name it. Prices should therefore start to fall.

Also anyone should therefore be able to procure the VNFs, connect them, and set up a network: in theory at least. Consequently the telco market itself should be the next to be affected. We should be seeing a whole new set of telco operators, emerging players, and what have you. All of which is just about in time. With the demand for mobile broadband starting to break through the roof and the IoT coming upon us, we will definitely need all the mobile networks we can lay our hands on.

However there still are some pitfalls. Corralling together the VNFs to form the ecosystem is the NFV platform. Major vendors appear to be setting up somewhat independent ecosystems based on their own platforms. These could collapse into independent silos with proprietary hooks, which pretty much puts the operators back where they had started from. Two steps forward and three steps back. Capex reductions do sound like a sure shot. On the other hand, reducing opex could perhaps be trickier. Opex reduction should be a key litmus test for NFV success.

Which brings up a related paradox. Smooth NFV deployment will likely happen with a single vendor at the helm. Yet that would almost guarantee the introduction of a certain degree of lock-in. Furthermore running virtual and physical networks side by side is another colossal challenge. No wonder that existing vendors of physical equipment are jockeying to manage/orchestrate the virtual network with the irrefutable argument that interoperability between physical and virtual worlds will be easier to achieve. Keeping the implementation truly open certainly promises to be an uphill battle.  Hardware may have given place to software but the soft walls may turn out to be no pushover.

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