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Issue 22 Articles

TM Forum logoTransformation at Breakneck Pace

Virtualization requires almost immediate attention to network operations, if the telecom world is to achieve its digital services goals while maintaining network reliability and ubiquity of service. Carol Wilson explains how network functions virtualization (NFV) is taking off at unprecedented speed and how the industry is tackling the issue of operational transformation to support virtualization

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During most major technology transitions in the telecom world, network management and Business and Operational Support Systems (BSS/OSS) have lagged behind, grabbing the industry’s attention only when they’ve threatened to derail anticipated progress. This is not proving to be the case where the shift to virtualization is concerned.

A scant nine months after 13 major global network operators came together to announce their collaborative effort on network functions virtualization (NFV), red flags were already being waved about the need to move quickly to determine what network management and orchestration of this newly virtualized effort would resemble. And before the European Telecommunications Standards Institute’s NFV Industry Specifications Group (ETSI NFV ISG) could blow out the candles on its first birthday cake, significant efforts were under way to determine how – and if – today’s legacy BSS/OSS would migrate to support NFV or whether a totally new approach would be needed.

Today, barely 20 months into the life of the new standards effort, the telecom industry has recognized the significant challenge at hand in transforming network operations to enable the full benefits of virtualization. For a more detailed discussion of ETSI’s work and the effect virtualization will have on BSS/OSS, please see TM Forum’s Quick Insights report, NFV: How will it impact OSS?

Different from the rest

There are several reasons this particular network technology transition – or transformation, as many people are calling it – is different from changes that have happened before, and those differences are creating the urgency for operational changes that mirror the pace at which NFV and its twin, software-defined networking (SDN), are being adopted.

First, the network operators themselves are driving the move to virtualization. They recognize the competitive challenges they face in being able to deliver new services more quickly and on demand, both to compete with over-the-top (OTT) providers, such as Amazon and Google, and to meet the challenge of their own network growth potential, particularly in the wireless realm. Without a parallel transformation of the systems that enable operators to provision, manage and bill for new services, the real benefits of virtualization cannot be realized.

Second, the early discussion of SDN started in the data center, and its initial benefits were based on the cost-savings associated with moving away from function-specific routers and servers, and toward commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware that could be controlled by specialized software. As telecom network operators began to digest the advantages of virtualization within the network, however, the tight focus on capital expenditure (CapEx) and operating expenditure (OpEx) savings shifted.

Long term, operators do want to save money on specialized hardware and reduce their dependence on vendor-specific software upgrades and features, but their near-term goal is to enable new service delivery in a rapid yet efficient way that enables new revenue and – most importantly – new profit.

This aspect of the transition to virtualization is important, because of the current reality of operating a telecom network: While operators must invest to deliver greater capacity to meet consumer demand, they are rarely, if ever, able to count on additional revenue from delivering that capacity. In fact, in many areas, competition is driving down what consumers actually pay to use more bandwidth.

Finally, the nature of virtualization itself requires almost immediate attention to Page 22 of 68Perspectives Exported on the 25th March 2014, 03:28 PM network operations, if the telecom world is to achieve its digital services goals while maintaining the network reliability and ubiquity of service for which it has long been known.

Virtualization breaks the physical bonds of network functions to devices and requires the ability to assemble a service or network capability from disparate systems whose geographic location within a network becomes irrelevant. Services must work closely with networks – or components/resources within networks – for virtualization to succeed.

Securing The Vision

The year-long debate over how to best operationalize virtualization has gone in a couple of directions. One concerns how to extract what’s needed from legacy systems, such as data about the network or customers, without relying on or being limited by those systems; the other has focused on the wisdom of moving BSS/OSS into the cloud, essentially to virtualize the operational processes themselves.

But there is a more fundamental view to this process, which underpins TM Forum’s new initiative, Zero-touch, Orchestration, Operations and Management (ZOOM). Because this is a long-term transformation, the Forum is focused on making sure the ultimate goal – how the virtualized network would function optimally – is kept in sight.

“In trying to figure out where we see TM Forum assets being most applicable, a number of our service provider members encouraged us to think of it from a ‘green-field’ perspective,” says Ken Dilbeck, Vice President, Strategic Programs, TM Forum. “We wanted to decide what the ultimate environment would look like and only then try to figure out how to get there.”

Because this is a dramatic change, trying first to plan a migration path from today’s BSS/OSS could serve to limit that vision, he says. Instead, telecom network operators need to take a page from the book of IT and data center experts and the transformation imposed there in the move to virtualization.

ZOOM is focused on where the network needs to be and what it needs to be able to deliver, which includes automated processes that enable the users themselves to turn services up and down quickly, as happens today in the cloud-computing world. Those processes should not require human intervention of any kind, but should be able to tap the necessary network resources, and they should enable personalization to individual customer requirements.

Through automation, service providers will also be able to cut CapEx and OpEx by eliminating time-consuming and error-prone manual processes, as well as dependence on function-specific hardware and vendor-specific integration. Ultimately, virtualized operations must enable the network to evolve as quickly as service demands and technology enables – something that isn’t possible today.

ZOOM will pull together the best and brightest minds from network, cloud and data center communities, according to Dilbeck. The idea is to enable the cloud and data center communities to influence how the network vision and architecture are developed, with the goals of reshaping business and operational practices to produce the flexibility and agility needed in a virtualized environment, he explains.

True to network service provider tradition, ZOOM will also shine a spotlight on security and reliability. Key to that process will be working with and through the existing groups defining NFV, notably the ETSI NFV ISG, as well as the organizations developing open standards in the SDN space, as open applications programming interfaces (APIs) are a necessary requirement of virtualized infrastructure. TM Forum pays special attention to open APIs through its Open Digital Program.

Most likely, migration steps from today’s BSS/OSS will become part of the strategy. TM Forum’s existing data models will be exploited, but these are tactical tools to be considered in the broader process of achieving the ultimate vision. The multiple NFV-related Catalyst projects on display at TM Forum Live!, the Forum’s annual management conference to be held in Nice, June 2-5, 2014, will inform and advance that vision. The Catalyst Program in general can also be used to validate solutions produced going forward.

All of this activity will be required if NFV is to continue to set telecom records in terms of development and deployment, and if virtualization in general is to achieve its ambitious goals for transforming telecom.

Carol Wilson is Editor-at-Large for Light Reading, where she also serves as Dean of Light Reading University. She has covered the telecom industry for 28 years, including 14 years at Telephony, eight of those as editor-in-chief. This article is excerpted from TM Forum’s Perspectives publication which is available free at Topics such as customer experience, analytics, digital services and IT transformation are the focus of TM Forum Live!, June 2-5 in Nice, France. InterComms readers can take advantage of $200 off the price of an All-Access Gold pass using the code PQV4VX.

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