interview


ETSI and the birth of NFV

Networking Globe SDN NFV Virtualization

For as many years as society has innovated, there has been a need for standards. Standards occupy that interesting space that we call (somewhat clumsily) ‘co-opetition’. They are what you might call a ‘grey area’ in capitalism – where it can be hard to say if people are working against or with one another.

Telecoms is no different. And perhaps one of the most important sources of standards here is ETSI – the European Telecommunications Standards Institute. ETSI has been around for over a quarter of a century, spanning the growth of digital right through to the present day mobile revolution.

david b“All of the major technological leaps required some level of standardisation to enable them to become key elements of real-life networks,” says David Boswarthick, ETSI’s Director of Committee Support Centre (pictured), who will be representing the standards body at this month’s Broadband World Forum. “If an Operator wishes to deploy global ICT solutions they have to be confident that the key elements of the technological chain are standardized. If not they will not be able to guarantee end to end interoperability.”

Regulators too fully comprehend the enabling elements of global standards. “If the system is clearly standardised,” Boswarthick says, “it gives a level of confidence that the European or indeed global operators will be able to offer the same level of service to their customers, and that will satisfy often rigorous regulatory requirements.”

However, despite the significance of standards to deploying services, they are often overlooked in the marketing buzz surrounding announcements on exciting new technologies. Such is certainly the case with the growing excitement around the Virtual Network, which naturally throws up some massive headaches for standardisation and the industry in general.

It is ironic, then, that the principle driving force for NFV is in fact a standards body – in late 2012 ETSI welcomed seven global operators, including British Telecom, Orange, Telefonica, Telecom Italia, AT&T, Deutsche Telekom and Verizon, coming together to forge the future of telecoms networks.

“All the major Operators had been looking for innovative solutions to support the ever increasing demands on their networks,” Boswarthick says. “Clearly it was important to make networks more efficient, dynamic and also cheaper to run. The key innovators in these big global operators took the initiative, exchanged their views and came to the conclusion that something new had to emerge, and the result was the NFV Industry Specification Group in ETSI.”

Since its creation in early 2013, ETSI ISG NFV has expanded from the initial seven operators to 38, and the overall membership of the group is now at a stable 280+ organisations with representatives from operators, vendors, service providers, researchers and others. “Instead of working in isolation, many key actors in the NFV field are profiting from the power of cooperation and collaboration inside such a vibrant ecosystem. Today we have moved beyond simply studying the question of NFV to specifying solutions, cooperating with other Standards Bodies, and proposing standards based solutions that may be deployed in real-life networks”

Working within a standards body gives a unique perspective to the whole question of deployment, and it’s interesting to listen to Boswarthick discuss the different challenges that deploying NFV and SDN present to the network operator ecosystem.

“If you think about SDN, it came out of the IT world – the Facebooks, the Apples, the Googles, the Amazons,” he says. “There everything is about content, and speed of deployment. It is less important for an over the top provider should their service be offline for a few seconds. But if an operator network goes down you may lose the all-important emergency call capability, or other services that link directly back into regulated market or direct budget lines. They have to be able to ensure the 5 nines – 99.999% availability all the time.”

Ultimately, hype alone isn’t going to ensure NFV transforms communications; it’s going to take hard work, and a lot of time: Boswarthick cautiously estimates that you won’t see ‘significant levels’ of NFV deployment in a telecom operator network for a good three years, and then it will be focussed more on new and innovative services that do not directly impact the principle budget lines.

“Initially it won’t be chosen for mainstream traffic: it will be more for Internet of Things connectivity, connected devices, and other new services with less requirement for regulation or real-time high-availability.”

This month’s Broadband World Forum will be Boswarthick’s first, and he’s relishing the opportunity to get even deeper beneath the marketing message on virtualisation and to find out more about the real issues for vendors and operators as they move towards deployments.

Visit the world’s leading conference and exhibition focused on fixed mobile convergence – Broadband World Forum 2015 – in London on 20-22 October.

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