Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) has been a consistent topic of conversation thus far at Management World 2013. For the as-yet uninitiated, NFV is the technology being used to virtualize the network’s control plane, as Amdocs’ Shannon Bell aptly describes. So, things like policy management, diameter signalling control, session border control, and maybe even real-time charging, are all beginning to fall under this emerging term’s umbrella.
If you’re not confused yet, try this on for size – NFV, in a proper sense, exhibits characteristics of cloud computing. Mainly that includes the concept of elasticity, another term that seems to be highly popular here in Cote d’Azur this week. Loosely, elasticity refers to the ability for these network control functions to scale up or down in a data center setting on an as-needed basis. This gets at the heart of why Telcos may be interested in NFV; when all of that network control intelligence is built into boxes, it ultimately represents sunk cost. Extracted from the boxes, in theory it can be more flexible, easier to upgrade, and – most important – cost less to possess.
As popular a topic as NFV is to discuss, let’s be clear that it isn’t quite a Telco reality just yet. Amdocs’ Bell admits that she and her colleagues “haven’t seen a lot of NFV yet because operators aren’t yet sure how to manage it.” Similarly, Tekelec’s Susan McNeice, explains that “telcos aren’t into SDN yet because it’s too early.” In other words – this is all new technology that breaks the mold on how Telcos have run networks for decades, so we should temper our expectations for how quickly they will be adopted, despite the current excitement and interest surrounding them.
Ultimately, however, the ideas and technology behind NFV should be good for BSS. Other than cost, which is probably the most important driver, a major reason NFV is gaining interest is because it pulls all of the smarts out of network boxes, thereby making them more accessible so that they can be used more effectively for creating and controlling services. Many of the rules that would govern how services can be accessed, consumed, managed, and perhaps charged or billed, would live in and/or be executed by systems that fall under the NFV umbrella. To take advantage of these smarts, however, product and service definitions will have to expand. All of the things a product or service can or cannot do, and all of the network functions they can utilize, need to be defined as part of the product and service creation process. Many of these factors, as it turns out, may also represent billable or chargeable events.
So, on the one hand you may roll your eyes and say, “Telcos already struggle with product definition and introduction; they are already too slow.” And of course you’d be correct. But there’s significant awareness in the industry that this problem needs to be fixed, both because of market forces (yeah, like OTT) and because technologies like NFV will emerge. Suddenly, this puts a premium on a Telco’s ability to streamline and automate its product management processes. That’s a core BSS function which, as it turns out, tends to separate the thoroughbreds from the nags in the universe of billing solutions, for example. NFV ultimately should be good for BSS simply because it will give the BSS much more to do. It may also force operators, once and for all, to reconsider how much long term value remains in legacy BSS applications that restrain them from doing new and exciting things with their increasingly intelligent and complex networks.