Orchestrating the virtual

As SDN & NFV become more prevalent for carriers today, or at least a serious consideration amongst tier 1 operators; equipment vendors and telcos are looking to understand orchestration in this new & virtualised paradigm.

Effective orchestration ties together physical infrastructure and virtual machines/functions in a heterogeneous network; defining policies and delivering a common language interface for multiple vendor devices & products.

Fundamentally, Network Orchestration refers to the automated management of network infrastructure, traditionally implemented in the Data Center and Layer 3 of the network. Orchestration is usually discussed with reference to service orientated architecture, virtualisation & provisioning amongst others; and to dynamically provision services from both physical and virtual network infrastructure. Orchestrators also help to tie together the network infrastructure with OSS platforms.

In an NFV context, the orchestration layer provides an abstraction layer between the physical infrastructure and carrier network applications. Such abstraction allows carriers to configure and programme the network more simply, without need to manually type in hundreds, if not thousands, of lines of code across multiple network devices. This simplification can be extended by solutions that can facilitate rapid services scale-out and on-demand provisioning of infrastructure to meet the demands and requirements of the business and its customers.

Despite SDN technology promising openness and vendor agnosticism, by its very definition and philosophy; network infrastructure supplied by many of the industry’s most prominent hardware & network vendors is still proprietary in its nature. Hypothetically this means that hardware from, say, Vendor-A, can only be coded and controlled by a proprietary Vendor-A orchestrator. In a multi-vendor environment where different network elements may be supplied by different providers; an orchestration platform that has the ability to unify multiple vendor offerings is of great importance in taking strides towards enabling the SDN & NFV vision.

But how can carriers overcome such a challenge?

So far, OTT (for the want of a better term) companies, such as eBay & Facebook, have taken an open-source approach to network control & management. eBay, for example, have hired a dedicated team of trained open-source software engineers to develop their management platforms in-house. By using OpenStack as a controller, they are able to operate their network with complete customisation and flexibility; which reportedly sees them benefit from greater accessibility, reliability & availability; running all platforms on Linux-based servers. They work with a large vendor partner to deliver OpenStack-specific plugins for SDN orchestration; and are closely monitoring the OpenDaylight Project, which has huge potential in shaping the future of the virtual carrier network.

The challenge that many operators may face, however, is one of human resource allocation. Carriers may argue that the fundamental business model of OTT service providers (free applications for the end user) afford them greater flexibility, and generally greater investment capabilities, than their subscription-based carrier counterparts. An end-user may tolerate the temporary degradation in quality of a free service they receive from an eBay or a Google; but QoS for paid-for carrier services is quite simply not an option. Naturally, the carrier community is cautious of this, and is taking a softly-softly approach to network innovation.

Another associated Open-Source challenge to be considered relates to support. Taking operations in-house, naturally, means that any troubleshooting has to be undertaken in-house; and a very highly skilled team of developers who’ve engineered the platform is required in order to guarantee its’ continued operation.

But Open-Source isn’t necessarily the only option. Players in the industry, such as Cyan, have taken strides towards collaborating with a number of other vendors in the industry to provide orchestration across virtual networks. The work being done at the ETSI NFV MANO Group (Management & Orchestration) is making strides in enabling orchestration in a virtual network environment, outside of the traditional Data Center remit of orchestration. As in the following, cited from the Cyan website:

End-to-End vEPC Orchestration in a Multi-vendor Open NFVI Environment

  • Partners: This ETSI PoC is a collaboration of Intel, Cyan, Red Hat, Dell and Connectem and is co-sponsored by Telefonica and Sprint.
  • Abstract: The purpose of this PoC is to demonstrate an open NFVI (NFV Infrastructure) ecosystem comprised of multiple vendors with a single orchestrator to provision, deploy and manage a mobile network-service comprised of a vEPC deployed on commercial off the shelf (COTS) hardware infrastructure and a Layer 2 mobile backhaul network. The demonstration will help identify the core requirements and information model structures that are required to support this open and flexible approach.

Multi-vendor Distributed NFV

  • Partners: This ETSI PoC is a collaboration of Cyan, RAD, Fortinet, Certes and is co-sponsored by Century Link.
  • Abstract: The purpose of this PoC is to demonstrate the ability to deploy certain functions that don’t necessarily require the scale and elasticity available in a large-scale centralized NFVI or data center environments, and conversely, require highly specialized and often localized configuration and deployment. The ability to support the deployment of virtualized functions at the customer edge requires a Distributed NFV (D-NFV) architecture, which this PoC aims to demonstrate. It will also show how new virtualized services can be turned up quickly to increase revenue.

At the time of writing, there is no dedicated industry body addressing the management & standardisation of orchestration. With a plethora of vendors, open-source platforms and other initiatives all steering products & uses of network orchestration & management; it can be difficult to see the wood from the trees.

Can carriers say “no” to a vendor proprietary controller for their hardware? Who’s going to standardise the general, all-purpose open controller to speak a universal language? Do proprietary (and even standardised) controllers contradict the fundamental spirit & philosophy of openness in Software Defined Networking?

Virtual Network Orchestration will be a deep-dive session at SDN & NFV 2014 – Europe’s premier congress for the burgeoning telecoms network virtualisation industry. Carriers can attend the show for free, via sdnconference.com. 15-17 September 2014, Nice, France.

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