Virtualization? It’s all about automation

There is no escaping the fact that Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) is a key cornerstone of a network ecosystem that is growing rapidly. The increasing adoption of internet-connected devices across the globe is generating large chunks of data for the telecommunications network to deal with, and the growing popularity of the Internet of Things (IoT) – both in consumer, such as the connected car or home, and industrial scenarios – is requiring operators to think differently about their architecture. 

NFV can provide operators with a solution that draws together these monolithic network elements. One of the major benefits of virtualizing the telecommunications network through NFV, and its peer technology Software-Defined Networking (SDN), is the ability to analyze and manage services and traffic flows throughout the network, allowing service operators greater operational agility through new, innovative service models while reducing CapEx. 

However, simply virtualizing network functions is not enough to ensure that the full benefits are felt – the network still needs to be managed efficiently. 

From the computer to the telco 

One of the main factors that drives service providers to initially make the move to NFV is the significant cost reductions it brings when compared to the traditional, black box-based approach. This method of bundling proprietary software with customized hardware – all provided by one manufacturer – has served the industry well, but it doesn’t fit with the rapidly changing network environment we are seeing, driven by the growth of the IoT and the impending arrival of commercial 5G. 

However, this initial benefit is only really an introduction to the true benefits of virtualization – something which we are already seeing in the IT sector, but is still very much in its infancy in telecommunications. Beyond these significant cost reductions, NFV can deliver a type of service and network flexibility that was previously impossible, while also introducing automation to all aspects of network functions management, from deployment and installation right through to the operational phase. This automation also helps develop new models of operation, improving network resilience in the medium-to-long term. The other key benefit of NFV is its ability to adapt to different network loads – something which will be crucial in the 5G era as mobile services grow exponentially and more and more devices reach “always on” levels of connectivity.   

With this in mind, the real objective of NFV isn’t simply to allow operators to save money on capital investments, but to deliver greater operational agility through wide-reaching architectural updates and deep changes in service models and operating procedures. 

Unlocking the potential 

Virtualization is not a new technology. Concepts that virtualize network nodes for communication services have been around the IT industry for years and have gained real traction, but it is a relatively recent idea to bring these virtualization concepts into telecommunications environments. However, the telco network is the perfect place for virtualization to flourish and reach its full potential. 

When utilized to its fullest extent, the real paradigm shift that virtualization delivers is in Virtual Network Function (VNF) lifecycle automation. By automating the network through virtualization, the need for manual configuration of hardware is removed (or at least greatly reduced), taking with it the inherent complexity and potential for configuration issues that come with human involvement. This not only gives the network added flexibility and agility in terms of deployment but also provides savings further into the operation with the ability to perform monitoring, scaling, healing, failover and infrastructure upgrades automatically, supporting service continuity with minimal network disruption. 

A changing scenario 

A key component of this automation is industry standards - such as those defined by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) Industry Specification Group (ISG) for NFV Management and Orchestration (MANO)’s architecture – which ensure that platforms are speaking the same language and can talk to one another and order provisioning of services without requiring a manual set-up, lowering costs and speeding up the delivery of new services. 

As one of the domains of NFV architecture laid out by the ETSI NFV ISG, NFV MANO for lifecycle management of VNF and network services is key to the delivery of a virtualized environment that can reach its full potential. However, the NFV information model is evolving with time and use, and extensions and changes are required to increase efficiency in the lifecycle management and to improve overall system reliability.   

In Italtel’s case, its experience as a VNF provider identified these flaws and enabled it to develop enhancements that allow for deeper control of VNFs. In particular, the emergence of virtual Session Border Controllers, such as Italtel’s NetMatch-S, has created the need for a change in thinking around these information models to address the increased flexibility in the management of network functions and improved reliability of virtualized systems they can provide.   

The network of tomorrow 

These developments in VNF management will be crucial as the 5G era begins, highlighted by MATLIDA, the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 project of which Italtel is part. Using VNFs, the research project will design and implement a holistic 5G framework for the design, development and orchestration of 5G-ready applications and network services over a sliced, programmable infrastructure. 

The Horizon 2020 project will be critical to the development of 5G across Europe, leveraging the experience that companies have gained in NFV, IoT, edge computing, virtualization and cloud computing within the fixed network ecosystem with to deliver the next generation of services for the telco environment. 

As the telco environment evolves at an unprecedented pace, NFV will play a huge role in the networks of tomorrow, with the ability to deploy and manage services and networks in a way that gives superior control, agility and reliability. As we move closer to an always-connected society, management automation will be key to the success of the virtualized network as we truly enter the era of IoT and 5G. 

Paolo Secondo Crosta, Head of Collaborative Research Projects, Italtel 

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