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Innovation Platforms: SDN and NFV drive business agility

January 12, 2016

With the emergence of the digital market, the business environment in which operators and service providers function has been undergoing a fundamental transformation. The ever-growing use of connectivity presents a major growth opportunity but it also places newer and tougher demands on networks. To capture this growing digital market opportunity in a better manner, telecom networks and support systems like operations support systems (OSS) and business support systems (BSS) need to gear up.

Business agility is one way to respond to the trends in digitisation and the growing pressure on operator profit margins. Implementing this requires operators and service providers to play a bigger role in the telecom ecosystem and shift from simply delivering network infrastructure to becoming providers of innovation platforms. To do this, valuable assets like network infrastructure, subscriber base, user identities, security credentials, location and mobility information, service and product catalogues, charging and billing functions, connected device identities, and many more capabilities that can be used for creating digital services will have to be leveraged in new ways. This in turn will require flexibility in all three dimensions: networks, services and customers.

Network agility

Network agility can be defined as the ability to efficiently plan and build networks, adapt them to changing requirements, and provide superior service quality. Cloud, software defined networks (SDN) and network function virtualisation (NFV) are the key elements in network agility.

From a technical point of view, NFV promotes the decoupling of network functions (NFs) from hardware. This separation results in massive flexibility in terms of how NFs can be dynamically deployed, elastically resized, and offered on an on-demand basis. Reduced costs, lower power consumption, increased speed and enhanced efficiency in the deployment of telecom networks are some of the potential benefits of this flexibility.

SDN, on the other hand, provides the ability to programmatically define and manage networks. From a technical perspective, it enables the separation of the data plane from the control plane. Service providers typically use SDN to take a holistic view of their networks, applying the concept across network layers and domains, which enables end-to-end programmability.

The main aim of combining NFV and SDN is to decouple services from resources. However, when these two technologies come together, they provide the additional benefit of detaching life cycle management from physical constraints, thus ruling out the need to deploy new physical resources to a great extent. Today, it is possible to provide an SDN/NFV service instantaneously without needing to deploy new physical resources. This flexibility is the foundation of network agility.

Service agility

The key for achieving service agility are the ability to create new services rapidly to launch and deliver superior quality services with ease, and to be able to monetise them. Similar to network agility, SDN and NFV play key roles in increasing the level of service agility.

Support systems like OSS and BSS provide the necessary functions to encapsulate SDN/NFV services and combine them with other assets into product offerings. These support systems also handle product life cycle management, the capability to charge for products, and the process of exposing products to users and partners. However, one of the most significant challenges for operators and service providers at present is time-to-market (TTM). One way to shorten the time duration from concept to delivery is to have a good understanding of business processes so that the level of automation in processes can be raised. As SDN and NFV facilitate new services, these technologies have the greatest impact on the business processes that lie between the formation of an idea and its implementation, such as planning, design and deployment.

The idea-to-implementation process can be broken down into a number of specification phases: network function, resources, and service specification.

Customer agility

The main factors that play a key role in achieving customer agility are the ability to interact with consumers in a flexible and dynamic way, the ability to expose new services, and the means to proactively resolve problems or swiftly react to issues.

Similar to network and service agility, SDN and NFV play key roles in enhancing the level of customer agility. In a digital economy, the role of partnerships and ecosystems is more significant as digitised businesses collaborate to a greater degree. In such an environment, new ways that enable mashed offerings, service exposure and blended services are needed. Service exposure, one of the core functions within service enablement, provides access to network capabilities exposed by the service development environment through programmable interfaces. Exposure enables developers – either the operator, partner or third-party player – to design and compose innovative services.

OSS and BSS provide the capabilities of managing partners and developers, handling all communication channels, and organising the administration of products and services. Technologies like SDN and OpenStack provide developers with programmable interfaces that can be used together with OSS/BSS capabilities so that new services can be deployed and executed in isolated virtual environments. In addition to exposing network programmability through OpenStack and OpenDaylight APIs, developers have access to other services and capabilities like user identification, charging and network policies, and configuration information to program NFs.

Shifting to SDN/NFV

SDN and NFV bring about changes that fundamentally alter the traditional way networks have been managed and developed. As enablers of automation, they make full use of a key architectural OSS/BSS principle: a catalogue-driven approach based on a unified model promoting reuse, automation, speed and correctness. The concept of TTM is changing. Traditionally, it was about getting a version of a service into the hands of paying customers as quickly as possible. Today, TTM is about how quickly the changing needs of modern consumers can be detected and addressed. OSS and BSS naturally play a key role in enabling the operation of this new paradigm. Automating the different flows that are required from the idea of the new service to its implementation and operation ensures that operators and service providers are in full control of their network and services, and are empowered to act on insights and determine how they are used. The concepts of SDN, NFV and virtual data centres, as well as the rapid adaptation to changing consumer needs form the pillars upon which network, service and customer agility are built.

Based on a white paper, “Gearing up support systems for software defined and virtualized networks”, published in the Ericsson Review


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