NFV and the Cloud

I find that NFV and cloud get conflated frequently and, while related, they are not the same. Even the term cloud can represent distinct approaches and adverse philosophies to next-generation infrastructure solutions. NFV is integral to the cloud, but a true cloud solution is much more.This was highlighted recently by the news that AT&T is using Metaswitch’s Perimeta session border controller (SBC) to power a portion of its new software-centric network is great proof of the need to ditch old, hardware-centric ways of building networks and embracing web-scale, virtualized software.

FierceWirelessTech notes that “As part of its mission to virtualize 75 percent of its network by 2020, AT&T is using Metaswitch’s Perimeta SBC to power a portion of its software-centric network.” Elsewhere I saw Perimeta described as a “cloud-based SBC.”

Two things struck me about these write-ups: 1) one is the use of the term cloud relative to a product and 2) the slow, piecemeal, pace at which this virtualization will occur for most providers.

Cloud Variations

The use of the term cloud can be, well, cloudy. Is NFV technology by itself cloud? When using cloud, does it mean technology, a business model, or a service delivery model? All 3? Or perhaps something else?

I see how cloud can be used a few different ways:

  1. Enabling cloud services – providing some basic infrastructure that are building blocks or connectivity that allows another entity to build and delivery cloud services (see category 2 below). Data center providers, PaaS and IaaS players would fall into this category. It’s a provider selling to service providers or enterprises.
  2. Delivering cloud services – something-as-a-service (e.g., UC, storage); this generally means selling to an enterprise or residential customer.
  3. Building a cloud – running NFV, SDN and virtualized software with your own NFVI (or leveraging a provider in category 1 for NFVI). This is building a network to deliver something in category 2 and means a service provider buying software and gear from vendors, integrating those elements and operating a network.
  4. Cloud sourcing infrastructure to deliver cloud services – for example, a cloud voice platform (e.g., Alianza, BroadSoft, Twillio) or VNFaaS solution; this approach is a infrastructure replacement solution to category 3 to deliver something in category 2 to a residential or business customer. In this case, service providers or enterprises are cloud sourcing technology and service delivery solutions. It should be the marriage of cloud technology (virtualized software) and cloud business model (SaaS).

Those are four ways to use the term cloud. I’m sure there are others!

In AT&T’s case, this new a SBC is one small piece of category 3. Here, a service provider is building a cloud and opts to purchase and deploy new NFV components. It’s not “cloud-based” in the sense of category 4 nor does it mean it’s provided with a SaaS business model. AT&T has many years to go before it’s fully built cloud!

Accelerating Virtualization’s Pace

On point two, NFV’s slow pace. The business case is for NFV voice building challenged enough. I think it is dangerously compounded when this transition is dragged out over five-to-ten years and dealing with just one piece of functionality here or there.

Flash-cut swap outs of infrastructure are not possible in most cases. However, swapping a piece of hardware for a VNF while the network surrounding it is still monolithic and old school, will complicate operations and add costs in the near term. And this is in the face of the broader NFV business case challenge. That’s the reality, however for a provider embarking on Building a Cloud (category 3).

Compare that to a solution in Cloud Sourcing (category 4), which will offer a faster and, likely, more complete approach to next-gen, virtualized infrastructure.

For more on different paths to NFV and cloud, check out our white paper Cloud Sourcing NFV VoIP.