The Shift to Virtualization
Today’s telecom operators are slowly embracing the shift to virtualization. Similar to what data centers have done with the virtualization of storage and computer hardware, the service provider community sees its own brand of virtualization as a means to drive greater scale and performance, bring new services to market more quickly, and stay competitive in a market that sees new entrants from outside the typical boundaries putting increasing pressure on their business.
The technology rollout to date is still in its early stages, and most successful examples of SDN/NFV deployments, either via proof of concept or via true implementation, have been centered around the most tangible of services, i.e. virtualizing customer premise equipment or virtual evolved packet core services. Both services represent examples of offerings that allow providers to customize deliverables to meet the specific requirements of individual businesses or consumers, mixing and matching individual network components as needed. These services also offer both CapEx and OpEx advantages by reducing the expense of specialized and/or proprietary hardware, while speeding service delivery and allowing for on-demand scalability and responding to real-time network conditions and user needs. The broader appeal of SDN/NFV expands well beyond these two tangible services, yet the roadmap to get there can be daunting.
While these two examples mentioned above represent the tip of the iceberg for SDN/NFV, the unanswered question remains: What are the critical factors that will help drive SDN/NFV commercialization across the service provider landscape? For most operators, there are six critical areas that need attention if SDN/NFV rollouts are to be successful:
VNF Onboarding & License Management
The VNF onboarding process is manual and complex,and most vendor processes for onboarding follow a different approach to licensing and delivery. Loading VNFs may require specific tools or dedicated components that in terms create ongoing inconveniences for the service provider as they look to launch these services. This piecemeal approach eliminates any efficiencies gained by the actual virtualization itself. As such, service providers should use an app-store approach to SDN and NFV that makes onboarding virtual network functions (VNFs) as easy as downloading and installing an app. Automating this via an app-store will bring a significantly faster time-to-market with access to commercially ready services, allow for continuous service innovation with rapid onboarding, service design and new software asset commercialization, and the ability to use pre-integrated, best-of-breed VNFs with minimal risk.
Deployment of successful VNFs is based on an open, partner-centric model, and the ability to support flexible relationship models becomes a critical limitation. These models must be able to support revenue sharing as well as multiple settlement options. Thus, service providers need a system or set of processes that allows interaction with a plethora of partners. These partnership interactions should be automated, allowing for efficient onboarding, agreement management and reliability tracking capabilities.
Centralized Catalog & Cloud-ready Marketplace
Service providers will face hybrid network operations for the foreseeable future, as SDN/NFV based services complement traditional physical network services. As customers demand both types of services, creating effective service bundles becomes a critical issue. Without a centralized enterprise product catalog strategy, service providers will be unable to bundle telecom products with SaaS apps and VNFs. As digital services bundle underlying resources from both physical and virtual network functions, a provider's catalog must be able to handle any type of network function. Without it, service bundle launches will be time consuming, require too much manual intervention, and may not be able to be launched at all, in some cases. Similarly, service providers need to be able to publish services in digital marketplaces that allow customers to order those services easily. A cloud marketplace that acts like an app store makes service availability and launch easy and more profitable.
Hybrid Operations Management
OSS transformation becomes a necessity for SDN/NFV success. Existing provisioning and fulfillment systems are not designed to manage services over a new hybrid environment that spans physical networks, NFV domains and SDN-ready transport environments, nor can these systems support end-to-end SLA provisioning and monitoring. This lack of alignment between service fulfillment and service assurance, lack of integrity between service configuration and device configuration and lack of automatic discovery and reconciliation capability impede the management of virtualized and non-virtualized services. Multi-party compensation and revenue management capabilities will also be affected.
Solving this requires a hybrid operations approach where OSS platforms can support both physical and virtual service management aspects. Traditional OSS must expand to address operations and maintenance issues surrounding virtual services. A Hybrid Operations Management (HOM) component helps service providers operate virtual and traditional networks at scale simultaneously. It fills the gaps in conventional hybrid network management and integrates with existing platforms in order to create a dynamic and continuous loop between production and development environments.
Real time Transaction Management
Virtual services bring new paradigms of charging to the equation, and the real-time nature of these services is simply incompatible with legacy BSS infrastructure. The value of delivering VNFs to customers is diminished if service providers can’t rate, charge or bill for them. Implementing a real-time transaction management strategy will help operators operationalize and monetize SDN and NFV by enabling them to leverage greater BSS functionality. The concept of microservices comes up frequently in discussions about virtualization and cloud. Microservices address the need for speed in virtualized service launches, yet they continue to honor the role that legacy BSS infrastructure plays in shepherding millions of customer records and billions in revenue. The key with BSS microservices, however, is having access to a library of plug-and-play elements that are pre-integrated with the existing BSS and allow for real-time transaction management.
These standalone components can be deployed in public or private clouds and should provide ready-access to real-time BSS functions like subscription management, settlements, partner management, real-time charging or even a product or service catalog. Combined with a virtualization-ready product catalog, VNF onboarding and license management, partner management, self-service and a cloud-ready marketplace with real-time transaction management, operators can create new revenue streams using virtual services. The upgraded transaction management infrastructure also becomes the basis for a hybrid BSS that is flexible enough to support the rating and charging requirements of both physical and virtual services.
Delivering a Rich Customer Experience
SDN/NFV services cannot be successful without self-service capabilities and proactive QoE management capabilities. Creating transparency means being proactive when service quality falters, ensuring what the customer is being charged is fair and understandable, and that the customer has visibility into the service options that meet their needs. A recent survey conducted by Netcracker and European Communicationsshowed that eighty-three percent of service providers agree that integrated self-care portals for customers and partners are either critical or very important to the successful launch of virtualized services. This means that service providers must enable portals that simplify the process of signing up, onboarding, approving, configuring, paying and shopping for customized services. Service providers need to bring together all necessary functions into one place and provide high-quality user experiences across all devices.
Bringing together the right combination of tools, processes and best practices, alongside professional services offerings, helps put service providers on the best path to succeed with SDN/NFV. The end goal should be increased operational efficiency and lower time-to-market through lower integration costs; optimized planning, deployment and usage; and open source-based technologies.
With 2017 being viewed as a year of deploying and actual commercializing of SDN and NFV, the telecommunications industry can finally move past simply giving SDN and NFV a chance, and actually turn it into a reality that in turn brings more efficient services to the forefront. Once an SDN/NFV foundation is in place, most service providers can expect to accelerate the pace at which they roll out new services. Standards bodies are working to streamline their processes, but they are often unable to keep up with the industry’s aggressive pace. This dynamic is putting pressure on service providers and their strategic partners to invest in and deliver multivendor, end-to-end solutions that can automatically adapt to standards over time. The good news is that none of these inhibitors is a road block for virtualization; they are merely potholes that can be avoided with the proper approach.
Major causes for lack of full-scale operationalization are existing network management and siloed operations support systems (OSS), which limit operators’ ability to effectively fulfill and assure services in a hybrid environment. In many instances operators have taken a very myopic bottom-up approach where they have deployed solutions solely to manage VNFs, which adds complexity to an already complex hybrid physical and virtual network environment.
In addition to this lack of alignment between service fulfillment and service assurance, a lack of integrity between service configuration and device configuration; a lack of automatic discovery and reconciliation capability; a lack of real-time policy-driven service management; and a lack of a centralized catalog to manage and blend both virtualized and non-virtualized services, multi-party compensation and revenue management capability all hinder commercialization of SDN and NFV.
So far, there have been trials, proofs of concepts (PoCs) and demos where operators and vendors work together to show – in most cases – small-scale success stories involving orchestration, VNFs, vCPE implementation or even vEPC deployment.
The challenge for operators now is to commercialize their SDN, NFV initiatives and launch them in a full-scale fashion in the market. By some accounts, less than 10 percent of PoCs convert into commercial deployments. This startling fact is not lost on operators as well as vendors, who are taking a hard look at why it’s taking so long to get SDN and NFV across the chasm and into full production.