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Industry preps for massive NFV rollout, Docomo takes lead

Posted: 12 May 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Docomo? network functions virtualisation? NFV? Deutsche Telecom?

Japan's NTT Docomo has revealed that it will virtualise its Evolved Packet Core by March 2016. The statement by the company at the NFV World Congress marked one of the first specific public commitments from a carrier about taking the emerging network functions virtualisation (NFV) standard out of the lab and into a production network.

NFV is widely seen as a major industry transformation in telecom, moving networking jobs off dedicated systems and putting them on virtual pools of x86 servers often running open source code. The transition portends a shift away from traditional communications systems designs based on ASICs and proprietary software.

Carriers feel compelled to make the shift to save costs, simplify network operations and match the pace of delivering new services at competing Web giants such as Amazon, Google and Netflix. So far the slow moving carriers have made many speeches in support of the NFV vision but said little about actual plans.

Despite their cautious pace, work is moving ahead. An AT&T representative said he expects to see carriers have NFV capabilities in production networks in a year or two. A former Sprint R&D manager said he helped create an end-to-end proof of concept for NFV while working at the carrier.

"A number of carriers, including us, have announced live trials/pilots/proof-of-concept projects, so it's happening already," said Christos Kolias, a senior research scientist in the Silicon Valley lab of Orange, a European carrier.

"I'm hoping in two or three years we will have completed the standards work and vendors can call themselves NFV-complaint, although there's no compliance programme yet," he stated.

A Deutsche Telecom executive said the carrier now calls itself "the software-defined operator," but made no specific announcements about plans for the new technology. He did say DT is working on a reorganisation that will merge IT and network technicians, a cultural shift NFV is forcing at many carriers.

Docomo stood out at the event for providing a specific commitment.

"We will introduce as our first use case a virtual EPC (evolved packet core) in our commercial network by at least March 2016," said Hiroshi Nakamura, managing director of the R&D strategy division at Docomo. "The virtual EPC is a first step for us, then we will move on to other virtual services such as [the IP Multimedia Subsystem]," he said.

The EPC is a set of servers and gateways that pass traffic from an LTE base station to the Internet. Given its compute-centric jobs, it is a logical first step for implementing NFV, one that many vendors focused on in demos in the show floor.

Docomo's move is just the beginning. Market watcher Dell'Oro Group forecasts as many as 30 per cent of carriers will license some form of virtual EPC software by 2019 up from almost zero today.

Longer term, Docomo plans for keeping state and process data separate to avoid disconnecting users when one system automatically takes over from another that fails. In addition, it plans to enhance its underlying transport network to spread software control capabilities across its multiple data centres, in part for disaster recovery.

"Right after the 2011 tsunami, we received 50-60 times more phone calls than usual," Nakamura said. "There was no way to handle such demand, but gathering national resources could reduce the impact," he said.

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