Last week's Mobile World Congress set the stage for an NFV showdown between Cisco, Juniper, HP and Alcatel.
All four are now officially network functions virtualization (NFV) vendors, offering technology that virtualizes key network functions on standard servers and then connects those servers using SDN and a unified orchestration platform.
The goal is to enable dynamic provisioning of applications, along with supporting network services. That means service providers can provision customized content and applications dynamically based upon user need.
In traditional hardware networks, service and application provisioning can take weeks -- or even months -- since it requires implementing new hardware to establish more capacity, as well as manually linking together all of the supporting services, such as firewalls and load balancers. With NFV, virtual network components can be provisioned with a few clicks, and supporting services can be deployed along with them.
The ability to offer customized content will mean service providers can begin prioritizing specific sets of content -- business video over YouTube in the workplace, for example. It also means they can spin up capacity for traffic spikes on holidays or during disasters.
Cisco pushes for virtualized packet core and portability across operators
Cisco has virtualized key capabilities of its Aggregation Service Router (ASR) 5000, and at Mobile World Congress, they demonstrated how these virtual features could be portable across disparate operator networks.
Cisco's Quantum Virtualized Packet Core lets service providers automate the way they authenticate and manage subscribers, and it lends a hand in dynamic provisioning of applications and services.
Cisco's strategy relies on a service broker layer that lets operators implement service models across their domains to extend functionality. Operators create profiles for services and applications, along with user and traffic policy. Then those profiles are shared through the broker and incorporated as part of the overall orchestration context.
"They've included in their design a service broker [that relies on] processing templates and descriptions of what the operators themselves want to achieve in an orchestration function," said ACG Research analyst Paul Parker-Johnson.
"This broker layer allows for service description to be exposed or advertised from one operator to another, so the guys who are working on the match have less work to do in creating the resulting parameters that are then passed down to the orchestration layer to allow the traffic to pass."
Cisco allows service providers to incrementally move into NFV. There are four ways that operators can buy into Cisco's new system. They can start with virtualizing just one network function. A second option lets them buy a prepaid orchestration package. The third option lets operators buy an entire application bundle. The final option lets them buy network virtualization as a hosted service.
"It all has the same personality, but there are different levels of commitment," Johnson said.
Juniper might be an NFV vendor, but it's pushing SDN for service providers
Juniper unveiled an expansion to its service provider SDN portfolio, and there's a new controller at the heart of the release that's not Contrail.
The strategy, rolled out at Mobile World Congress this week, combines NFV and SDN to let operators automate provisioning of applications, supporting network services and traffic optimization through a unified orchestration system.
Juniper said the goal is to let operators provide varying levels of content quality based upon the user and context. That means companies could prioritize video for business use over video for personal use, even to the same user on the same device.
To enable this, Juniper has one set of programmable technology aimed at the network layer, another aimed at the application layer, and then an in-between that integrates the two. At the network layer, Juniper has released software called Fusion, which lets operators manage thousands of network components -- whether they are routers or mobile devices -- through a single platform as if they were one cohesive unit. Meanwhile, a new SDN controller called NorthStar uses existing protocols, like Border Gateway Protocol, to control traffic between network components. NorthStar controllers automatically identify optimal paths for traffic based upon set policy.
Meanwhile, at the service layer, operators can use NFV technology to virtualize the service creation functions and subscriber management. Services are controlled and provisioned through the Service Control Gateway that lives on MX series routers, which can provision applications based on subscriber and policy. Then, there is the Carrier Services Gateway, which lets operators provision virtual network functions either directly on a router, on a standard hardened x86 server, or on a virtual platform in the cloud. Operators can use these three options as "a stepping stone" to implement various levels of NFV or to implement distributed services, said Mike Marcellin, senior vice president of marketing and strategy at Juniper.
HP's NFV brings technology and a partner ecosystem
Hewlett-Packard launched OpenNFV, which also aims to virtualize network features and enable dynamic application, network and service provisioning in operator networks. HP differentiates itself by taking a three-prong approach, which includes an overarching reference architecture, a partner ecosystem, and a testing lab for users.
HP's reference architecture, the HP NFV RA, stretches across physical and virtual network elements, enabling provisioning of network features, services and applications. The RA includes the HP Virtual Services Router that will be used to support and manage virtualized appliances in distributed clouds. Essentially, HP will use a combination of NFV on servers and SDN controllers to connect those servers through networks. All will work within a single orchestration framework.
HP also detailed the OpenNFV Partner Program and the OpenNFV Labs, which aim to develop an ecosystem of partners co-creating NFV features or applications. The lab will also encourage vendors to test how they interoperate in a multivendor environment. HP execs said they are already working with a range of equipment providers and carriers.
Alcatel-Lucent applies CloudBand orchestration to NFV
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 and multimedia services on demand.
Using ALU NFV technology, mobile network operators can place evolved packet core (EPC), IP multimedia subsystem (IMS,) and radio access network 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 users' needs.
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 [would] 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."
Why net neutrality laws matter to SDN and NFV thinkers
SDN and NFV combined simplify service chaining
What is the relationship between SDN and NFV?
New IETF standards: NFV and service chains
In mobile networks, SDN and NFV for service orchestration