Service Providers Talk White Box Trials & Future at 2017 NFV World Congress

Introduction:

The 2017 NFV World Congress was held May 2-5, 2017 in San Jose, CA. This author attended the first two days and was quite impressed with the depth and breadth of the presentations and panel sessions.

According to conference Chair Mark Lum, there were over 40 network operator speakers and/or panelists on the program.  Those included AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, Deutsche Telekom, BT, Orange,  Cable Labs (representing the cablecos/MSOs), NTT (2 divisions), China Unicom, Level 3, PCCW Global, and Google (which designs and deploys their own backbone + customer facing network along with a managed WiFi network for India Railways).  A few of the operator keynotes and panel sessions were from:

  • Ken Duell | AVP, New Technology Product Development & Engineering | AT&T
  • Shawn Hakl | Vice President | Verizon
  • Mansoor Hanif | Director of Converged Networks Research Lab | BT
  • Vijoy Pandey | Head of Engineering, Networking | Google
  • Geng Lin | CTO, Enterprise Network & Infrastructure Services | Google
  • Phil McKinney | President & CEO | CableLabs
  • Patrick Lopez | VP Networks Innovation | Telefónica (panel and keynote)
  • Andrew Dugan | CTO | Level 3 Communications (panel)
  • Lyle Bertz | Principal NFV/SDN Architect | Sprint
  • Klaus Martiny | Senior Program Manager | Deutsche Telekom (ETSI NFV ISG)
  • Hany Fahmy | AVP – Global Public Policy | AT&T
  • Jehanne Savi | Executive Leader, All-IP & On-Demand Networks Programs | Orange
  • Christos Kolias | Sr. Research Scientist & Principal | Orange
  • Francisco-Javier Ramón | Head of Network Virtualisation, GCTO | Telefónica
  • Travis Ewert | SVP – Network SW Development | Level 3 Communications
  • Ichiro Fukuda | Chief Architect, Infrastructure | NTT Innovation Institute
  • Kazuaki Obana | Executive Research Engineer | NTT DOCOMO
  • David Hughes | VP Engineering | PCCW Global
  • Shahar Steiff | AVP New Technologies | PCCW Global
  • Zheng Yi | Senior engineer of IDC network | China Unicom
  • Tetsuya Nakamura | Principal Architect | CableLabs

White Boxes Take Center Stage:

During the conference, quite a few network providers, including AT&T, Verizon and Telefonica, talked about open source software running on white boxes.  AT&T is preparing a US coast-to-coast trial, Verizon hinted that they would deploy white boxes soon, while Telefonica is committed to the Facebook organized Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP) which is specifying “open hardware.”  In a blog post last June, Telefonica explained why it had joined TIP.

1.  AT&T’s Ken Duell, PhD said that AT&T had virtualized 34% of its network functions (via AT&T VNFs*) at the end of 2006 with a goal of 55% VNFs by the end of 2017 and 75% by 2020.  If so, this year would be the “tipping point” for AT&T’s virtualization of network functions as the majority of AT&T services would be delivered by VNFs.

* A Virtual Network Function (VNF) is often referred to as a “virtual appliance for networking.”  It replicates the functions of a specific type of physical network equipment via software running on a commodity compute server.  Examples include: virtual router, virtual firewall, virtual application delivery controller, virtual session border controller, etc.

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ONAP, previously described in this article, is an OS platform for managing and orchestrating network services. It was positioned as being complementary to VNFs.  Ken said both ONAP and VNFs would run on multiple white box configurations that provided closed loop control, self-service, and quick development of network applications (which would run on top of ONAP).

In AT&T’s forthcoming “coast to coast” white box trial there will be: three different chip vendors (Barefoot, Broadcom, and Intel); Network OS from Snaproute; and two ODMs (Agema and Edgecore).  Value added functions would use “closed loop control,” Duell said.  Please refer to AT&T White Box Trial illustration below.

Chart courtesy of AT&T

The white box switching and routing platform architecture is based on disaggregated hardware and software (courtesy of the Open Compute Project), a distributed network OS (dNOS), transition from closed (vendor proprietary boxes) to open networking (white box) environment, mix and match 3rd party control and management plane and VNFs though a common network data base.  Hardware and software are independently enabled by a hardware abstraction layer.  All of the above is depicted in the graphic below

Chart courtesy of AT&T

During the Q &A session, Ken noted that the scope of AT&T’s VNFs will be to grow new services, not to re-implement old one’s.  In particular, old legacy services (e.g. based on TDM) won’t have VNFs and customers using some of those legacy services will be encouraged to move to new packet services replacing them.

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Sidebar: AT&T wrote on the NFV website:

AT&T is on the leading edge in applying real-world SDN and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) concepts to a carrier environment. The first of those deployments to launch, Network on Demand, allows customers to adjust their network capabilities on demand in nearly real time.

This network is supported by Domain 2.0, our supplier program, which will transform our network to a modern, open, cloud-based architecture. Domain 2.0 allows us to collaborate with a variety of vendors offering equipment to build this new architecture, based on NFV and SDN. We continue to seek out and welcome suppliers through an open and ongoing procurement process.  http://about.att.com/innovation/sdn

Note: AT&T last month said it tested an open source, white box switch carrying customer traffic.

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2.  Verizon’s Shawn Hakl  said incumbent network providers have put a large amount of dollars into new VNF and Software Defined (SD) infrastructure (including SD-WANs), which penalizes upstart providers that don’t have the money to invest in those areas.  For example, Verizon built an “orchestrator of orchestrator’s” to support its network virtualization technology.

He said that VNF innovation would necessitate multiple VNFs per box, micro-services (undefined), orchestration, and customized service(s) per customer.  Shawn claimed that “customers want true white boxes – commercial off the shelf hardware which could be re-purposed (for different services or applications).  He said that Verizon’s move to white boxes aligns with the companies long term “cloud vision” and that Bring Your Own Hardware (BYOH) is coming.”  However, he did not say when and was not at all definitive as Ken Duell of AT&T (as described above).

During a Q & A, Hakl would not disclose which white box vendors’ equipment would be included but said it will be a “mix of traditional and non-traditional suppliers.  Customers differentiate between white box and gray box solutions. We’ve firmly seen customers are looking for standard off-the-shelf hardware, and they are willing to wait for this,” he said. “They perceive their risk to be really low.  The people who have that are going to clean up,” he added.

Backgrounder:   In 2015, Verizon introduced a software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN) service. A year later, it began applying network functions virtualization (NFV) to its enterprise customers. Next up: a white-box approach employs a cloud model to deliver services.

It’s interesting to note that with all the talk about a “cloud vision,” Verizon has exited the cloud computing business after acquiring Teramark for their data centers (now divested) to enable them to be a viable cloud service provider.  Verizon recently sold its cloud and managed hosting services to IBM in a deal that also includes further collaboration on networking and cloud services. The companies said the deal will allow each to “fully realize the benefits of their cloud computing investments.”

Conclusion:

Apparently Verizon and AT&T believe a white box solution enables service providers to deliver services on-demand, quickly, and efficiently. However, there’s a lot more systems integration involved as a network OS, various VNFs and a Management and Network Orchestration (MANO) software entity must be included to make NFV a commercial reality.  Also note that there are no standards for exposed interfaces, APIs or inter-layer interfaces (e.g. between a VNF and MANO).  In fact, one of the lunchtime roundtable discussions at Wednesday’s NFV Congress was whether or not telco’s could leverage open source MANO?  That remains to be seen.

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NFV Specification Status:

While NFV implementations are now being specified by Open Source projects like OPNFV (LINUX Foundation) and OSM (ETSI Open Source MANO), the foundation work for NFV was done by the ETSI Industry Specification Group for Network Functions Virtualization (ETSI ISG NFV).

That ETSI  group was responsible for developing requirements and a reference architecture for virtualization for various functions within telecom networks. ETSI ISG NFV launched in January 2013 when it brought together seven leading telecoms network operators, including: AT&T, BT, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telecom Italia, Telefonica, and Verizon. These companies were joined by 52 other network operators, telecoms equipment vendors, IT vendors, and technology providers to make up the ETSI ISG NFV. Not long after, the ETSI ISG NFV community grew to over 230 individual companies, including many global service providers.  Please visit various references below:

ETSI ISG NFV References:

NFV Technology Page (information): http://www.etsi.org/nfv

NFV Portal (working area): http://portal.etsi.org/nfv

NFV Proofs of Concept (information): http://www.etsi.org/nfv-poc

NFV Plugtest (information & registration): http://www.etsi.org/nfvplugtest

Open Area-Drafts: http://docbox.etsi.org/ISG/NFV/Open/Drafts/

Issue tracker: http://nfvwiki.etsi.org/index.php?title=NFV_Issue_Tracker

https://www.layer123.com/nfv-webcast-mle123-live/

 

 

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