Mobile carriers, vendors eager to virtualize networks

Separating software from hardware could bring new services sooner and help carriers compete with Internet players

There has to be a sea change in how mobile operators build their networks and implement new services, and virtualization will make it possible, carriers and equipment vendors say.

Executives from established companies on both sides of the business told an audience at Mobile World Congress on Thursday that a new day is coming and that is good news.

"What brought us here will not keep us here," Ericsson Chief Technology Officer Ulf Ewaldsson said during a conference session at the tail end of the four-day mobile gathering.

Advances in virtualization, cloud computing and SDN (software-defined networking) from the IT world offer a way for mobile carriers to keep up with Internet-based service providers, the panelists said. Their industry is only starting to figure out how to embrace these advances and there's much more work to be done in a variety of related organizations, they said.

The overall effort, called NFV (network functions virtualization), seeks to separate the software that controls mobile services from the equipment that handles mobile traffic. It's the same basic idea behind SDN in data centers but has particular implications for the mobile world, the panelists said. Work already done on SDN can give the mobile effort a leg up, they said.

So-called "over the top" services from Internet players and app startups are a "red ocean" overwhelming mobile operators' attempts to introduce value-added services of their own, said Rachid El Hattachi, senior vice president of technology architecture and blueprints at Deutsche Telekom.

"We are living in an environment where it is extremely difficult to compete with over-the-top services," El Hattachi said. Such services can be developed in days and achieve wide adoption in weeks, he said.

"Our time to market in the telco industry has to go down dramatically," he said. That won't happen if carriers keep their time-honored approach to infrastructure, which is to adopt new capabilities in the form of new hardware platforms and layer those on top of one another, one generation after another, El Hattachi said. This will add complexity and drive up costs exponentially, he said.

"Obviously, this architecture cannot handle our future challenges," El Hattachi said. "Cloud computing should be a basic technology for defining our future architecture."

A combination of SDN and NFV will make it easier and faster to change how the network operates and open the door to applications that aren't possible today, he said.

Both carrier and vendor executives voiced optimism about the changes taking shape.

"We are in exactly the right window of opportunity" for virtualization in mobile networks, said Reinhard Kreft, head of standards and academia at Vodafone Group Services. LTE, which is an Internet Protocol network from end to end, helps to set the stage, he said. Virtualizing network functions will help carriers handle mobile demand more efficiently and save money, as well as speed up new service development, Kreft said.

Ericsson's Ewaldsson and speakers from two other network powerhouses, Cisco Systems and Huawei Technologies, said elements of the new mobile network order are starting to take shape but there is more work to do.

If the mobile industry can bring out new network capabilities such as reducing delays, it can boost the importance of networks in cloud services, Ewaldsson said. For example, a cloud service that controlled the cars on a highway might depend on lower latency, he said.

Industry and standards groups including the NGMN (Next-Generation Mobile Networks) Alliance, ETSI, the Open Networking Forum and the TM Forum are all involved in mobile virtualization, but it's not yet clear who will guide the effort or how it will take shape, the panelists said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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