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Linux's NFV crew: Operators keen to ditch clunky networks, be 'cool' like, er, Facebook

Moving as fast as embiggened bods can shift

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OPNFV Summit Network operators have a jealous eye on the likes of Facebook and Google and want to ditch their clunky networks to compete for "cooler" consumer services, the head of the open-source network function virtualisation (NFV) project has said.

Heather Kirksey is director of the collaborative Linux foundation's OPNFV project – the open source software platform intended to promote the uptake of new products and services using Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV).

Some of the project's backers include big hitters such as HPE, Huawei, AT&T, Brocade, Cisco, China Mobile, IBM and Juniper – to name just a few.

Kirksey says that since the project began in 2014, NFV and its close cousin software-defined networking have started to move from "the hype stage to the implementation stage".

She believes that on the operator side, the existential threat is from web companies. They can't compete at the same speed because their proprietary networks are slow, she says. "They are looking at companies like Facebook and Google and wanting to innovate in the services layer. The push towards SDN or NFV is due to a desire to be more agile."

They want to try new services and "fail fast" if they don't work.

"Most of the service providers such as AT&T, Verizon etc.. look at the likes of Google and Facebook as having all the cool new services, ad revenue, high valuations, and being the place where all the developers want to go. A lot of them want to be offering more cool web consumer services."

She added: "There is a feeling that if they move to more software-oriented architecture, they can fail a bit more easily and spread out risk. Rather than having to make significant network investments they can be more agile. Software is obviously very different from routers and switches."

Equipment vendors are beginning to realise that too - particularly given the consolidation that has been going on. "They need their customers to be successful so they continue to buy stuff, and are moving to more of a system integration role."

She added: "A lot of them have parallel businesses. So they are still selling their old boxes, but now offering software and cloudified versions, too. That in turn is good for operators, as they don't have brownfield sites, and can’t flip a switch over night, they need to do migrations and will still need the old stuff, too."

Given the size and scale of the telecoms industry, she says they are moving as fast as they can to catch up with the web companies. "You have to consider their history, legacy, size, existing requirements, public infrastructure, regulatory requirements and supporting emergency services and low enforcements. They have a lot of non-trivial requirements to consider."

Unlike other open source projects, the OPVFN does not do a lot of in-house coding itself - not least because it only has 10 full-time staff. Instead Kirskey describes it as a "clearing house" for other open source projects.

"Fault management was one area we identified when started. Initially it was taking up to 10 minutes to detect a fault in Openstack, but having extended APIs and put more messaging in we now have it down to under 1 minute."

She added: "It can be tricky as we have to learn all the culture of different groups and organisations, as well as developing our own culture. We have gone ahead first into the deep end."

Partners including Telefonica, China Mobile, AT&T, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone built have already built a lot in-house that they want to open source.

Both SDN and are still very new concepts particularly for such a long-in-the-tooth industry, Kirskey says. "It's early days; there will be different ideas on how to do things." ®

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