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Point of view paper: Network Virtualisation

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Soft Networks – the future / Software is the new hardware.

There’s a lot of noise about Network Function Virtualisation (NfV) and Software Defined Networks (SDN). Unfortunately much of it is just a stream of jargon and the ‘touchable’ benefits are lost.

We want to clarify what NfV and SDN are all about and how they can help. We believe they offer a simpler, better way to build networks, both for ourselves and for our customers[1]

NfV and SDN – or Soft Networks, as we call them – will make network services more dynamic and automated. They’ll pave the way for a new generation of services that are quicker and easier to set up and change. Pay-per-use commercial models will reduce capital outlay and overall cost-to-use. These developments are going to shake up the network services industry for the better. And we’re right in the thick of it, leading from the front.

Let’s make one thing clear: we’re not out to ‘sell’ you NfV and SDN. We’re simply using these approaches in our business to create better products and services for you. We’re embedding them into our own network because they help us innovate on your behalf.  And as the technologies mature, we’ll guide you in how to get the most out of them.

The background

BT was part of the opening conversations about standard IT virtualisation technologies, and we led the research into these emerging technologies from the beginning. We introduced policies and standards as a founding member of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), along with our partners AT&T, Deutsche Telecom, Orange, Telecom Italia, Telefonica and Verizon. Since then ETSI has evolved into a 270-strong membership, including Cisco, HP and IBM Europe. This partnership – amongst enterprises more frequently seen in competition – is testament to the strength of the alliances we’ve made to help retain our position as a leading global telecoms network provider.

What are NfV and SDN?

Network functions, previously done by separate pieces of on-premise equipment, will in future be controlled by software applications running on generic servers. This is NfV. SDN is similar, but at the wide-area and carrier level, with network configuration and traffic management being handled by centralized software that controls the whole network.

For us, NfV is the smartphone of corporate networks. It’ll make network services quicker to set up, easier to change and cheaper to use. They’ll also be better for the environment. It will transform our network infrastructure from dedicated hardware appliances to virtual software applications running on shared servers.

To continue the analogy, SDN – the smartphone app – applies the soft approach to configuration used in data centres to networks. Instead of using physical means to control networks, administrators will be able to use software running across multiple vendors’ equipment via an automated process.

Conceptually different, yet entirely complementary technologies, NfV and SDN are going to change the network. Not just the technology but the commercials too. For the better.

What are the benefits?

Soft networks are quicker to configure, cheaper to run and more flexible.  We believe that most organisations will use soft networks eventually; it’s a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’. Ninety-three per cent of operators have plans to deploy NfV in their network at some point[2]. Together NfV and SDN will make possible a new generation of services, bringing you a network that’s more directly in line with the needs of your organisation.

Gone will be the static bandwidth and fixed services of the past. Soft networks will inject dynamism for both the network operator and the customer. We’ll be able to provision services in minutes rather than hours. There will be fewer truck rolls and engineer visits and more self-service. Costs will be more flexible and lower overall. Wide area networking will have the scope to be as flexible as data centre network and hosting. And we’ll be able to integrate cloud-based computer services with network computer services.

The way you consume network services will be completely transformed. First of all, you’ll be able to try out configurations before committing.  If you need more functionality you’ll be able to simply increase this on the server, rather than going out and buying more hardware as you used to do. Then as you go on, you can scale capacity up or down according to your needs. So rather than signing up to a long-term contract, you’ll be able to pay for services as you use them.

What kind of partner will you need?

The way the world connects is changing, and you’re going to need someone to guide you through those changes. We’re a guide you can trust. We know change can be unsettling, especially when it affects some of the most sensitive areas of your business. That’s why you need someone who really knows what they’re doing.

We’ve been virtualising our networks and IT for years. The techniques we’re using now are exactly the same. It’s just the software that’s new. The essential difference with soft networking is that it’s shared, rather than dedicated. But delivering virtual private services across a shared infrastructure is at the heart of what we do.  We’ve actually been doing it for decades for thousands of customers and we know how to run this type of service inside out.

And using software where traditionally you’ve always used hardware? That requires a fundamental change of mindset. But you don’t need to take a leap of faith. To go back to security: our own security platform is virtualised so we understand the challenges you face. You’re no longer buying a device with dedicated security. When you start adding multiple functions onto a box, there’s a risk of compromise if one goes rogue. All the applications need to be secure. You need to know that it’s secure now and will be secure tomorrow even if your network changes. We can offer expert support.

Mixing the new with the old.

We know you need to see a return on your existing investments. So we’ll take our usual pragmatic approach. We’ll identify the places where the new technology works for you, we’ll integrate it with your existing infrastructure and get them working together. So you won’t need to abandon any of your existing investments before you’ve seen the return you wanted.  

We’ve long offered hybrid networks and infrastructure services: combinations of different technologies in both public and private sectors. The advent of NfV and SDN simply adds a new kind of hybrid to what we offer. A hybrid of hardware-based and software-based network services.

BT Cloud Connect is a good example. Already launched to the market, it uses NfV and a Riverbed appliance, both of which are fully virtualised, but we mix them with traditional Cisco technology to get the best of both worlds.

Cloud of Clouds

Soft networks underpin our Cloud of Clouds vision and we’re committed to investing in this technology globally for the years to come. To drive the change that customers want from cloud, we needed to offer a more dynamic and rapid way to change and configure services, from the end user, to where the application resides and back again. Traditionally, we’d deliver boxes and servers and big change control programmes, but now with Cloud of Cloud, we’re using NfV and SDN dynamically to make these changes. Bringing together a network cloud and a computing cloud with clouds of applications, contact management and security. Integrating and managing them for you as one service. There’s no way we’d want to do this on a fixed network with hardware-based functionality. So every element of the service is soft – the network, the computing – right down to the pricing.

It takes a special kind of organisation to handle all this, but with us you’ll be in safe hands.

Over the last five years BT has turned its cloud services capability into a global offer, across 18 countries and five continents. The CMS is the central innovation. Its development and transformation was significantly accelerated through participation in TM Forum’s Catalyst projects and work in and contribution to the Forum’s Open Digital Ecosystem program. In parallel, BT’s wider OSS and BSS framework is based on the Forum’s Frameworx suite of standards, which is deployed by all kinds of service providers around the world.’ TM Forum

These are more efficient, practical, safer technologies. We have migrated to a virtual way of working ourselves. We don’t need dedicated boxes because part of the way cloud talks to the customer is through these virtual appliances. We can offer access to services over a secure private network – rather than pushing our customers out onto the Internet – which gives us greater ability to protect our customers from an attack of any kind. It integrates the network and security as one mechanism. We’re not putting in individual firewalls whenever a customer wants to branch out to the outside world. We set up the cloud infrastructure to support you, and it’s you that controls the connections that go to the end network appliances.

What’s different about our approach?

With the advent of NfV and SDN there’s a whole new eco-system developing in the networking industry. We have long-established and successful relationships with all the major players. This means we can innovate and share learning with our customers faster.

We believe our vision is more complete than others in the market. There’s no doubt there will be some difficulties in unlocking the potential of NfV and SDN. But because of our approach – combining leadership with partnership – we think we’re best placed to realise this potential. We’re already working on trials with over 50 of our biggest customers.

Because we are an integrated communications service provider, we look at NfV and SDN across the whole service landscape, not just one part of it. We seek out appropriate opportunities to virtualise on our customers’ premises, in our data centres, with our partners and in our own network development. And we do all of this on a global scale. We bring all of this together, and our focus is on getting the experience right for you.

What’s the new commercial model?

With soft networks the cost savings come from several directions. You can try before you buy, so you no longer have to commit to a long-term contract if you don’t need to. You can use a service for a term that suits you. You don’t need to continue to invest capital in the hardware, you can pay on a usage or volume basis, whatever works best for your business. Licenses for services – if unused – can be re-applied elsewhere. The main differences will be in the value-added services that you can roll out on your network, and the flexible pricing models that mean you only pay for what you use.

These new commercial models will take time to bed down as the industry works out how it’s going to deliver virtualised services. We expect change will come gradually. We can navigate the challenges ahead with you, and help you adopt soft networking in the way that’s best for your business.

Whatever is best for you.

Network service virtualisation is a big deal and it’s going to change the industry and the services our customers buy in many positive ways.  We’ve been involved from the start and we continue to lead, in collaboration with our partners. The benefits of flexibility and cost savings are clear, but there are still many wrinkles to iron out.

AT BT we excel in making things work together, and that’s never been more true than in this case. We need to be all things to all our customers – and that’s exactly what we are. We help you get the most out of your existing infrastructure while carefully weaving in newer, virtualised services in a hybrid solution that’s right for your organisation.

[1] Virtualising Network Functions White Paper of November 2012

[2] Infonetics Research SDN and NFV Strategies: Global Service Provider (2014) Survey