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Carriers are shifting delivery of wide area network services from inflexible hardware to more agile software that is expected to bring significant benefits to a company's branch network.
Carriers that provide managed WAN services prefer to distribute software called virtual customer premise equipment (vCPE) to reduce costs. Virtual CPE lets carriers deploy or add services remotely through an update, rather than send a technician to install high-maintenance hardware in a customer's data center.
The shift to virtual CPE, which started in earnest over the last year, has gotten a warm reception from enterprises, said Rohit Mehra, an analyst at IDC. Many companies attracted to virtual CPE are "looking for ways to optimize and provide more agility to their remote sites and branch offices."
The foundation for vCPE is network function virtualization (NFV), a framework carriers use to build software-based network services in their data centers. Major carriers, including AT&T, Verizon, Deutsche Telecom and SK Telecom, are in the process of moving hardware-based network services to software-based systems running on virtual machines. AT&T, for example, wants to virtualize more than 75% of its network functions by 2020.
Carriers' progress in NFV will be the focus of the NFV World Congress this week in San Jose, Calif.
Carriers' NFV work has led to delivering routing, firewalls and other virtual network functions (VNFs) through vCPE, a trend called enterprise NFV. Companies believe enterprise NFV will simplify connecting branch office networks to a public cloud and software as a service (SaaS) applications, Mehra said.
"The complexity and capacity needs [for cloud and SaaS applications] have grown multifold," he said.
Connecting a branch network to online applications is simpler through virtual CPE than having the Internet connection go through hardware in the corporate data center. A more direct link to a company's WAN improves the delivery of Internet-based business applications, such as Microsoft Office 365, Salesforce, and online voice and video conferencing.
Integra, a telecommunications service provider that serves 11 states in the western U.S, has used NFV to build a hosted PBX service. Rather than deploy PBX hardware in a customer's data center, Integra runs a virtual instance of the PBX in its data center.
"Now all we're doing at the customer premise is setting up our fiber network to serve that customer and placing phones at their desks that go back to a centralized cloud infrastructure," said Stephen Fisher, vice president of network planning and security at Integra.
Vendor activity in the virtual CPE market
Enterprise interest in vCPE led Cisco to introduce last month a software-based version of the branch platform it provides on its Integrated Service Routers. Cisco's enterprise NFV platform will deliver some VNFs, including virtual routers, firewalls, WAN optimization and wireless LAN controllers.
The platform includes KVM hypervisor-based software for hosting VNFs on x86 infrastructure. The software, called the NFV Infrastructure Layer, will assist in service chaining and come with open APIs for deploying third-party VNFs, according to Cisco.
Non-Cisco VNFs could one day come from online app stores. Service provider Masergy Communications launched last June a portal, called Virtual f(n), for downloading and deploying VNFs. The first products available included Brocade routers and Fortinet firewalls.
Last November, Juniper Networks introduced the Cloud CPE that included a software-based router with a variety of VNFs for running LANs. The platform, which runs on commodity x86 hardware, could be deployed on a carrier's or its customer's data center.
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