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Alcatel-Lucent (ALU) released technology this week that will let service providers virtualize and automate elements of the mobile network, making it possible to provision Voice over LTE (VoLTE) and multimedia services on demand.
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Using ALU network functions virtualization (NFV) technology, mobile network operators can place evolved packet core (EPC), IP multimedia subsystem (IMS) and radio access network (RAN) features on virtual machines in the cloud. Then, network operators can use SDN technology from ALU's spin-off Nuage Networks to connect those virtual machines across data centers, as well as to optimize networks. Finally, they can then employ ALU's orchestration platform CloudBand to automatically provision these functions across distributed data centers.
Combined, the technology will let mobile operators provision and de-provision instances of voice or other real-time applications on demand to meet user need.
Specifically, virtualizing the EPC will let operators automate the authentication and management of subscribers as they access services. Meanwhile, virtualizing the IMS changes the way those multimedia services are provisioned. A virtualized IMS means voice services, for example, can be controlled by hypervisors and deployed among a pool of servers without having to be bound to a particular hardware server and CPU, explained Akshay Sharma, a research director at Gartner. Provisioning can occur dynamically in response to user need.
"Previously, we had to buy more capacity in boxes and have it sitting idle until Mother's Day, [for example], when call volume went up," Sharma explained. "In the new world, we can [provision] new instances of those functions for call volume without having dedicated resources that sit idle for the rest of the year."
In LTE networks, which are IP-based, voice has been such a challenge that operators have pushed it over legacy 3G networks and maintained LTE for data and video. In fact, a number of key players have delayed launching VoLTE services because of performance challenges, said Manish Gulyani, vice president of product marketing at ALU.
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"Nobody has launched voice over LTE -- they are all on track to do it this year. But now, performance really matters. It's no longer just a data service," Gulyani said. Beyond voice, mobile operators are finding the need to burst up and down capacity to support machine-to-machine technology, as well as mobile worker access.
This week at Mobile World Congress, ALU and China Mobile are displaying the combined SDN and NFV technology, allowing users to make calls on VoLTE handsets over a multivendor network that uses Alcatel's virtual network functions and orchestration.
A number of vendors are introducing carrier NFV, but few are able to introduce orchestration and SDN out of the gate.
"You could argue that ALU has some unique advantage in that they have IMS virtualized and they have a router and they have Nuage. They are ahead in connecting the dots," Sharma said.
How NFV and mobile will change business models
ALU and other equipment vendors are banking on the concept that mobile operators will find their way to new revenue-generation models using NFV and SDN.
In old-school networks, it took weeks, sometimes even months, to provision new applications and their supporting network services. With NFV and SDN, this type of provisioning and service chaining can be done in minutes.
This kind of flexibility will mean that operators can charge for services on an as-you-go basis without being required to build out excess capacity for traffic spikes and dips. What's more, if Net Neutrality rules remain irrelevant, operators will soon be able to use SDN and NFV to prioritize certain types of content for a higher rate, Sharma said.
Going forward, ALU expects to see even more mobile network functions become virtualized, but it'll be a while before off-the-shelf servers and virtual machines can handle intensive applications, such as video, or replace core routers.
"There is work that needs to be done through the chipset to improve the performance of those platforms," Gulyani said. "We are working with vendors in the chipset space to get it to a place where you can get the performance."