For years we have been hearing about how virtualization has revolutionized the enterprise data center, providing a wide range of benefits from both a business and technology standpoint. With the advent of network function virtualization, the movement has moved to the mobile network, allowing the virtualization of network functions into a connected network capable of delivering communications services on top of industry-standard, high-volume servers. This shift promises to offer a host of benefits over the legacy, proprietary hardware that has been the foundation of our communications networks for decades.
Far from a fad, NFV and the software-defined network are getting serious consideration from tier-one operators globally. Case in point: In December, AT&T announced its intent to virtualize and control as much as 75% of its customer-facing network with software by 2020. They see the shift as one that will allow them to significantly reduce capital expenditures while at the same time increase the capacity of their network.
For those of us in the industry, this should come as no surprise. We have seen mobile operators face a variety of challenges, one of the most critical from a business perspective being the declining average revenue per user. This is being exacerbated by the trend of exponential data growth which is forcing operators to continue to add capacity to their networks.
The time to buck conventional wisdom is now
In order to add this capacity, while conventional wisdom might suggest we do more of the same – build bigger boxes that can handle more data, and deploy more of them – now is the time for a new way of thinking.
Legacy mobile data architectures just aren’t economically suited for today’s world of rapid data growth and smart devices. In fact, the “bigger box” approach isn’t just economically irresponsible, it flies in the face of Moore’s Law from a technical perspective, as the commoditization of boxes just can’t keep pace with the traffic growth.
By continuing to attempt to solve the problem with legacy approaches, operators are adding fuel to the fire; spending money for a short-term fix that will soon need addressed again as traffic growth continues. As opposed to “throwing dollars and boxes” at the capacity problem, customers that adopt NFV have the ability to add capacity as part of a step-by-step approach that is as much a benefit to their subscribers as it is to their shareholders.
The ability to adjust to changing traffic patterns dynamically will become increasingly important with the emergence of machine-to-machine communications and the impact it will have on operator networks. Vodafone predicts that by 2020, networks will need to support more than 50 billion connected devices. While we are just beginning to understand how it will impact networks, what we do know is it will involve many connections, with a very low average revenue per user, and the traffic patterns are expected to be “bursty” in nature. As a result, many experts believe that running M2M on a virtualized network that enables them to “dial up and down capacity” will be critical as the impact of M2M becomes more widely understood.
An architecture based on NFV dramatically changes the economics of networks, bringing tremendous service flexibility in a manner that nicely coexists with legacy network investments. Through the virtualization of network functions onto existing data center infrastructure operators can transform the economics of deploying and scaling mobile networks from a capital and operational perspective. What’s more, the benefits aren’t just economic, as this software-driven approach also simplifies the operation of the network, which significantly decreases the length of time required to launch the new service offerings required to create the new revenue streams needed for profitability.