NFV: Central to the Telco Cloud for the Next Decade?
In today’s information age, 5G, cloud, AI, autonomous networks, and immersive communications are at the heart of the telecommunications world.
Thanks to these cutting-edge technologies, the way we communicate with each other and even connect to things has changed beyond recognition. And underpinning all of this is the telco infrastructure.
If we look back over time, we can see that the telco infrastructure has experienced several rounds of upgrades, from all-IP to all-cloud, and then to all-AI. Throughout this process, NFV undoubtedly laid a milestone, marking a new chapter in the infrastructure evolution.
NFV: Groundbreaking innovation
As telco networks continued to evolve, the network architecture became more cost-effective, modular, and scalable. However, cumbersome hardware boxes were still used. And as the volume and variety of proprietary hardware appliances increased significantly, hardware sprawl soon became a common issue on networks. With the software tightly coupled with hardware, the introduction of each new service required a whole new spectrum of hardware devices, making the development and rollout of new services particularly time-consuming and labor-intensive. In addition, as soon as the hardware reached its EOS, the design-integrate-deploy cycle must be repeated, lowering efficiency in service innovation and go-to-market. Worse still, operators were usually locked in with specific vendors, resulting in high costs and complex O&M.
Then NFV emerged, effectively addressing all of these challenges with concepts and technologies innovatively borrowed from the IT field. The concept of NFV was put forward by a consortium of global leading operators at software-defined networking (SDN) and OpenFlow World Congress. Following this, the NFV Industry Specification Group (ISG) was established within ETSI. The ISG has been devoted to standardizing everything about NFV, from its architecture to data model, protocols, APIs, testing, reliability, security, and more.
Figure 1: NFV reference architectural framework (Source: ETSI GS NFV)
Virtualization technology is at the core of NFV. It helps decouple network functions from proprietary hardware and enables these network functions to run on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware, including computing, storage, and network appliances. These general-purpose hardware resources are abstracted into pools, which provide resources for services on demand. This outside-of-the-box approach eliminates silos in which service development and operations typically function, contributing to higher efficiency, elasticity, and agility in telco networks.
Since emerging, NFV has turned many heads, including almost all industry stakeholders — from operators to equipment vendors and even software start-ups — as they recognized this chance to stake their claim on the NFV market. This is leading to the rapid growth of the market: According to market researchers Future Market Insights, the NFV market was valued at about US$3.9 billion in 2021 and is predicted to grow at a CAGR of 6.6% for the next decade to reach nearly US$ 7.8 billion by the end of 2032.
Telco Cloud: Building solid NFV-based infrastructure
NFV first emerged alongside the development of SDN. But unlike NFV, SDN was put forward by researchers and data center architects. SDN is a network architecture innovation, which separates data processing from traffic control for optimal network performance. NFV focuses on network layers 4-7, SDN on layers 1-3. That said, each complements the other. When combined, they can potentially provide an even better solution that contributes to automated network configuration, on-demand service provisioning, and guaranteed QoS. And under Cloud Native — a new paradigm for building, running, and managing software on a unified cloud infrastructure — NFV and SDN have reshaped the telco networks and built up a solid, adaptive, and reliable telco infrastructure: Telco Cloud.
Figure 2: Telco Cloud location
The Telco Cloud is mapped to the NFV Infrastructure (NFVI) and Management and Orchestration (MANO) parts of the NFV reference architecture stipulated in the ETSI NFV specifications. The NFVI leverages virtualization technology to consolidate scattered resources into resources pools, while the MANO centrally orchestrates and manages both NFVI resources and services. Together, they help deliver a true Real Time, On Demand, All Online, DIY, and Social (ROADS) experience to users.
Figure 3: Huawei’s Telco Cloud solution
You may be wondering, why not move telco services to the Public Cloud? Prior to the Telco Cloud, the Public Cloud was extensively used with IT solutions and concepts, like cloud computing, DevOps, and CI/CD. Even so, most operators remained on the fence when it came to migrating telco services to Public Cloud, especially for services on the core network. This was mainly because Public Cloud could not meet the stringent requirements from telco networks for reliability, customization, performance, and security.
Verizon, for example, claimed that the homogenous nature of Public Cloud would hinder them from delivering differentiated services and experiences, while operators would be vulnerable to vendor lock-in due to the difficulty in switching between Public Cloud providers. Dave Bolan, Research Director at Dell’Oro Group, also advised operators to be cautious when deciding to shift to Public Cloud in his speech at the 5G Core Summit 2021.
ETSI, Huawei, and international partners: Growth in the past decade
Over the past ten years, ETSI had remained committed to refining NFV standards and synergizing emerging technologies — such as MEC, automation, and open-source contributions — with NFV-based networks, paving the way to NFV-driven business success. In March this year, ETSI celebrated the ten-year anniversary of NFV, with industry players reaching a consensus to further standardize NFV and promote the development of Telco Cloud.
In compliance with ETSI standards, operators and vendors have also been developing their NFV-based telco networks, which, in turn, gives further impetus to standardization efforts. In China, major operators have launched NFV-based network evolution strategies, including China Mobile‘s NovoNet 2020, China Unicom‘s CUBE-Net 3.0, and China Telecom’s CTNet 2025. Elsewhere around the world, since AT&A launched its Domain 2.0 initiative to build a cloud-enabled infrastructure, more leading operators embarked on the journey to Telco Cloud.
To expedite this journey, Huawei leveraged NFV to tailor Telco Cloud solutions for different operators. For example, to facilitate China Mobile’s implementation of their 5G+ plan, Huawei helped build the world’s largest cloud-based telecom resource pool, which can provide resources for over 1,000 5G core network functions to serve hundreds of millions of users. To ensure service reliability, Huawei also helped China Mobile deploy an eight-level disaster recovery solution on top of the resource pool, enabling services to be restored upon faults at different levels, from a VM to a DC. With this, Huawei and China Mobile constructed a world-leading cloud-based 5G core network.
And the industry took notice: They were presented with the 5G Core Leadership award by Omdia at the 2021 5G World Summit.
The collaboration between Huawei and operators outside China is also impressive. Back in 2016, Telecom Argentina teamed up with Huawei to move its 4G Packet Core and IMS Core onto the NFVI. After only nine months, Huawei helped Telecom Argentina build Latin America’s largest NFV-based network and smoothly migrated both voice and data services to the new infrastructure, enabling more than 22 million mobile users to enjoy a better experience. Compared with its traditional network, the new network of Telecom Argentina has an all-cloud core network with better resource utilization, a distributed architecture where control and media planes are separate, and an enhanced network management system integrated with advanced functions including KPI-based fault self-healing, cross-layer information collection, and fault alarm management. This project set a benchmark for cloud-based transformation in the industry. For this, Telecom Argentina and Huawei received the Network Transformation Initiative award at the World Communication Awards 2017. Currently, Telecom Argentina is building their cloud-based 5G convergent core network using more technologies that can work together with NFV, with Huawei remaining a trusted partner.
Through extensive practices and comprehensive verification, Huawei’s NFVI solution has been continuously strengthened. Huawei has been rated by GlobalData as the NFVI Leader with clear advantages in all aspects for four years in a row. With Huawei’s Telco Cloud, operators can better coordinate and consolidate their physical and virtual data centers, optimize the service platform, and elevate service quality, fully unleashing the potential of IT infrastructure.
Figure 4: Huawei rated as the NFVI Leader (Source: GlobalData)
The way to the next decade
It is clear that flexible resource allocation and utilization are essential for Telco Cloud. Therefore, resource carriers play a critical role. At the initial stage of NFV deployment, VMs had reached maturity, naturally becoming the mainstream resource carriers. However, in 5G, operators require a more lightweight infrastructure so that their networks can be more agile and flexible. To this end, they introduced microservice architecture, stateless design, and other IT-oriented technologies to redefine the traditional monolithic software systems as loosely coupled modular services, each capable of being independently developed, deployed, and scaled. As such, operators are seeking lightweight alternatives to VMs. Containers, with less overheads and higher flexibility, are considered to be today’s best choice.
Unlike a VM, a container does not need to virtualize the entire OS, instead virtualizing a small-scale isolated virtual environment on a host OS. A container instance can be considered a miniature OS that shares the Linux kernel of the host OS, with the container running its own processes on this thin OS. The container packages up the code and all its dependencies so that processes can move quickly and reliably from one environment to another.
Figure 5: VM vs Container
Since NFV Release 4, which started in 2020, ETSI has been defining how NFV is implemented with containers. As more operators shift their services to containers, containerization has become an unavoidable step ahead for Telco Cloud evolution. However, all-container networks cannot be realized overnight. To protect operators’ previous investments and ensure a smooth transition, VMs and containers need to co-exist for a period of time.
Huawei recognized this trend of containerization, while at the same time noting both the strengths and limitations of containers. Considering that containers have not yet matured to the point of providing carrier-class reliability, high performance, and Cloud Native capabilities, Huawei put forward the Dual-Engine Container solution as an industry-first, officially releasing it at this year’s MWC.
The solution allows both VMs and containers to be accommodated with the same resource pool in compliance with ETSI standards, and utilizes leading-edge technologies to deliver guaranteed network performance and reliability. These include:
- Programmable high-performance
- Framework subhealth detection
- Cross-layer fault demarcation
- Storage bypass
To apply this solution, operators do not need to build their networks from the scratch and instead can just expand capacity, inheriting all existing devices and software. In this way, operators can cost-effectively transition their networks to all-container, without worrying about the uncertainties around the pace of evolution, while enjoying the benefits of convergent resources, management, and deployment. For these innovations, the solution won the China SDN/NFV/Network AI Excellent Case Award issued by the SDN/NFV/AI Industry Alliance of China Communications Standards Association in May this year.
In addition to the NFVI, MANO — the other part of the Telco Cloud — also needs to be continuously upgraded to cope with the ever-diversifying services and increasingly complex O&M. For example, the combination of 5G and MEC has given rise to numerous different types of ultra-distributed edge networks, complicating network management.
At the same time, the openness of the NFV architecture is a double-edged sword: It allows for multi-vendor integration for a network, while introducing more interfaces, standards, and interworking issues. This also poses higher requirement for MANO to manage multi-vendor and multi-cloud systems. Therefore, in the near future, MANO enhancement must be a top concern for industry players.
In this regard, Huawei proposed the MANO Evolution concept to advance MANO from six aspects:
- Standardization: Drawing on the ETSI specifications and mainstream open-source ecosystems, MANO Evolution needs to support multi-cloud adaptation.
- Declarative APIs and intent-driven management: Different vendors can customize their declarative APIs and enjoy automatic network design via intent-driven configurations.
- Smooth evolution of installed base: MANO Evolution will be compatible with the original MANO interfaces to manage existing VNFs, while using new interfaces to interconnect with new VNFs. This ensures seamless upgrades of the existing MANO and Telco Cloud.
- E2E full-scenario O&M: MANO Evolution will be used for all FCAPS management activities, and it will allow users to view and check distributed cloud resources including VMs, containers, and bare metal servers.
- CD/CT automation: MANO Evolution will realize zero-touch network changes with built-in CD/CT tools that interconnect with third-party tool chains via open interfaces.
- Unified MEC management: MANO Evolution will be able to orchestrate complex services and massive edge sites, and centrally manage distributed clouds.
Huawei believes that building next-generation MANO that supports multi-cloud, heterogeneous deployment, unified central and edge clouds, unified ICT infrastructure, intent-driven design, and data-driven networks is the key to evolving the Telco Cloud over the next ten years.
This aligns with the directions proposed by ETSI. In the white paper Evolving NFV towards the next decade recently released by ETSI, Huawei, and industry partners, the group attempted to map out the potential directions on how NFV can evolve in the next decade, mainly including API development, open source, multi-cloud, unified management, automation, and AI.
The road ahead is still full of twists and turns. To reach our destination, all industry players need to join forces to polish the standards, carry out pilot studies, and explore how new features can be commercialized.
Will NFV remain central to the Telco Cloud in ten years’ time? Only time will tell.
- Voice of Telecom_Comics_Evolution of Communications Platforms and Architectures
- Success Stories | Telecom Argentina: Transforming into 2020 with cloud
- Huawei Launches the Industry’s First Dual-Engine Container Solution for the New 5.5G Era
- Evolving NFV towards the Next Decade – Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of ETSI NFV
Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.