Best practices for building and operating telco networks are changing at an ever-faster pace. Technology lifecycles are also shortening. Operators had several decades, like for example with Signalling System 7, that heralded the way for digital phone services in the mid 70s. This then-new PSTN technology was still being deployed in developed markets over 20 years after standardisation. The advent of IP accelerated change even more. Today, operators often have no more than five years to see the next best thing like say 5G networks, through their complete lifecycle.
Because of this increased pressure, one of today’s next best things for Network Operators is virtualisation, usually called NfV (Network function Virtualisation) and SDN (Software Defined Networks). Tier 1 operators are all active in this space and most have Proof-of-Concept trials underway. Indeed, one of virtualisation’s key promises is faster time-to-market.
The shift to virtualization is accompanied by major standardisation and open source initiatives such as OpenFlow that defines the interface between the control and forwarding layers of an SDN architecture. This enables a physical device in the home to be “bridged” to its virtual counterpart within the network.
Despite all the media hype, network virtualization enthusiasts expect the first deployments in the 2016-2017 timeframe. The more pessimistic observers aren’t expecting any real market impact until 2020. As a realist, I probably see things happening somewhere in between.
Virtualization, based on a clear divide between software and hardware resources, started in the IT sector over a decade ago. It originally meant just the creation of a virtual version of something real. This most commonly referred to one computer running software to create a virtual version of another computer. In the network domain, the most important aspect of virtualisation is the decoupling of network elements’ software from their hardware. So some network elements that were only available as a hardware device can now be replaced by a software component running in a virtual machine that is executed on a commoditized hardware platform in a data centre.
Obvious candidates for virtualisation include routers, firewalls, load balancers and other network devices that can all be run s on commodity hardware.
Operator devices such as gateways or set-top boxes are more advanced in this domain. Orange and Swisscom have for example already brought this vision into the home network with hardware independent software platforms such as SOP powering their home gateways.
The founding mission of SoftAtHome back in 2007 was already to decouple software and hardware within the digital home namely on the home gateway and the set-top box. The home network is now seen by operators as the termination point of their own networks and in this sense SoftAtHome was a true precursor of the NfV/SDN movement.
Extending the virtualization movement into the home requires a software stack that runs on all major chipsets and key manufacturer devices. This is one of our key achievements with our SOP 7 (SoftAtHome Operating Platform) product.
SOP enables a software-based roadmap for services just like NfV is intended to do. To achieve this, SOP is based on a Hardware Abstraction Layer.
The major chipsets manufacturers have ambitious plans to support home gateway hardware virtualization, and as their products evolve so too will SOP, enabling an ever greater degree of decoupling thanks to hardware virtualization and software containers.
CloudAtHome already brings key cloud-based benefits to the services delivered at home.
SOP was not only a virtualization precursor but continues to fully embrace and support this major shift. SoftAtHome contributes its unique knowledge of the interaction of core and edge network elements and CPE to this industry-wide virtualization movement. It is our goal to ensure that the digital home, with its key entertainment and communications services benefits from – and contributes to – network virtualisation.
In the second next blog on Virtualisation, I will go into its key benefits for operators that take an end-to-end view, right into the home.