We are being inundated with information and theories on how best to achieve virtualization within network operators, but without firm standards in place is it simply too risky to undertake?
Despite great strides being made, particularly by ETSI, to address the technical challenges around network virtualization, NFV (Network Functions Virtualization) the BSS part of the operation could be left behind.
If you listen to what some software vendors have to say, there is no time to waste. They tend to use the words virtualization and monetization in the same sentence but for that marriage to become a reality they have to work out how to get the whole back-office online and virtualized. But how easy is that to achieve, especially if they are still mired in legacy systems that may realistically never achieve a virtual state?
According to Infonetics' founder and principal analyst, Michael Howard, "the move to SDN and NFV will change the way operators make equipment purchasing decisions, placing a greater focus on software. Though hardware will always be required, its functions will be refined, and the agility of services and operations will be driven by software."
A recent survey by Openet revealed that 66 percent of operators have either deployed or a planning to deploy virtualized BSS by 2016. In a subsequent whitepaper it stated that “virtualized solutions take away the one- to-one dependency of BSS software on specific hardware; this approach enables easier creation, scaling and management of instances of BSS solutions in response to business or technical requirements.”
So, the drivers for virtualization of the back-office are clearly the real-time requirements of today’s network customers, not only in the acquisition, delivery and charging of digital goods and services, but the ability to do so in an agile and scalable fashion.
Network operators are facing the almost daily challenge of changing business models and they can ill-afford to spend vast sums on BSS infrastructure that resolves only one challenge at a time. The market is demanding convergence as well as flexibility – both key elements of any virtualization effort.
However, it may also be argued that a singular real-time online charging system (OCS) or real-time convergent charging (RTCC) platform directly linked to numerous other back-office systems including CRM, accounting, fraud, and business assurance is more than adequate for most operators. After all, isn’t this the way the industry has been operating for decades?
The solid arguments for cloud and virtualized BSS is that are accessible by a number of properties and systems in real-time (presuming connectivity is present) are that they provide economies of scale. In addition, virtualization allows for optimum utilization of hardware deployed, especially in managing peak loads. It can also be easily reutilized during off-peak periods.
Virtualization is supposed to make it easy to deploy applications and apply updates. However, as we all know, this does not obviate the need for critical testing before implementing even though the same virtualized environment can be configured for staging purposes using subsets of real data for testing.
Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst at Heavy Reading speaking of a North American Tier 1 operator implementing a virtualized policy server infrastructure said it was “a great example of how to introduce NFV concepts into a live commercial network at scale. We expect many operators will follow a similar model as they look to virtualize the mobile core and prepare for a broader software-centric network strategy.”
But a note of caution is probably required at this stage. Despite the obvious benefits of virtualization being espoused, it may be too early to ascertain the long-term cost savings. Equally important is determining just how ’virtualized’ the BSS systems being selected actually can be. Virtualization of one core system does not necessarily mean the whole BSS operation benefits.
Caution, and close scrutiny may be the order of the day now, but long term there is little doubt that virtualization will take hold but who will be the first?