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The cable business typically doesn’t feature high on lists of dynamic industries that rapidly adopt innovative new technologies in order to deliver compelling new products and stellar customer support.

Under the surface, however, cable operators are using virtualization technologies to achieve major changes in how their networks are architected and to expand the services that they offer. By leveraging the same network virtualization concepts that are being adopted by telecom service providers, they see the potential to transform their operations and unlock the full potential of their infrastructure.

In this post, we’ll outline some of the key trends around the use of virtualization by cable operators. We’ll discuss the business opportunities for cable that should open up as a result of virtualization and highlight some of the key challenges that still need to be addressed, both technical and operational.

Virtualization trends: much more than OPEX reduction

We don’t know how much time Larry the Cable Guy spends reading arcane documents from the ETSI Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) group, but the most obvious benefit that virtualization brings to cable operators is the one that’s been discussed ever since NFV was invented: OPEX reduction is clearly the low-hanging fruit. The concept of a “truck roll” is familiar to all of us who’ve ever spent a day at home waiting for Larry to show up so that he can replace or reconfigure a set-top box. Virtualizing the CPE (set-top box) function in the cloud not only reduces the cost of the box itself, it also simplifies and shortens the installation process. Once the right orchestration solution is in place in the cloud, all Larry has to do is install the box, cable it and power it on. The centralized orchestration takes care of the configuration and provisioning automatically, so Larry is off to his next call instead of sitting on the phone with the central office. And there’s no need for him to come back when the box needs upgrading, because all that software functionality is now in the cloud.

Beyond OPEX reductions, virtualization is key to other important cable trends that bring tangible value to both consumers and enterprise customers.

Video-on-Demand (VoD) represents a significant threat to cable operators, given the risk that the Over-the-Top (OTT) players like Amazon, Apple, Google and Netflix will dominate this space. NFV provides a cloud-based operations model that allows the cable companies to compete effectively. It enables greater personalization of content and services, including dynamic, targeted ad insertion based on user and/or device profiles. Virtualization brings a cost-effective approach to TV Everywhere, by enabling video processing to be shifted between the core and edge hubs for efficient resource utilization. And the trend towards “homespots” (residential WiFi gateways that support outdoor public access) requires virtualized gateways at the network edge.

While the trends above are certainly visible to customers, changes in the network architecture itself also deliver significant business benefits to the cable operators. Tomorrow’s cable networks will incorporate multiple technologies such as DOCSIS 3.1, Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP) and Remote-PHY, so NFV is critical for managing this hybrid infrastructure. NFV also enables Virtual Network Functions (VNFs) to be instantiated on servers at the edge, supporting services that require low latency in a virtualized environment.  

Virtualization brings new business opportunities

Virtualization gives cable operators the flexibility that allows them to target new business opportunities. One example of this is the ability to offer services seamlessly across multiple networks, whether those are traditional Hybrid Fiber-Coax (HFC), all-fiber or WiFi. This is critical for meeting the expectations of today’s mobile customers, in both their personal and business lives. Through virtualization, operators can quickly trial new services or features with a targeted subset of their customer base, then either scale up and deploy them widely or shut them down without incurring the impact of dedicated hardware that now becomes redundant. NFV-based orchestration facilitates self-service portals that allow both consumers and enterprise customers to order and configure new services themselves.

While multiscreen video services constitute an important part of today’s customers’ expectations, they also contribute to the need for low-cost, flexible Content Delivery Networks (CDNs). The virtualization of CDNs at the network edge, properly orchestrated in line with NFV, enables operators to instantiate CDNs dynamically, in response to changing traffic patterns and customer needs. This CDN virtualization also lowers the cost of sophisticated video processing such as blending, scaling and processing.

Internet of Things (IoT) services represent a significant business opportunity for cable operators, just as for their telecom counterparts. Analysts predict an installed base of billions of IoT-enabled devices in US homes by 2020, all requiring connectivity for sensing, monitoring and control. Cable operators are focused on architecting a massively-scalable, cloud-based environment for IoT processing, with virtualization hosted at the edge to ensure low latency comparable to what would be delivered by processing hosted on the device or gateway.

These new business opportunities, as well as others not covered here, illustrate that, for cable operators, network virtualization is about much more than OPEX reductions. It can enable them to be positioned as leaders in the wide range of broadband services that tomorrow’s customers will expect (and will pay for). In addition, the prevalence of WiFi on smartphones and tablets creates opportunities for them to participate effectively in the mobile space. The next few years could be interesting in the world of cable.

A few hurdles to be overcome

Of course, this rosy picture for cable operators is blurred by a few critical challenges, some business-related and some technical.

The toughest challenge may well be the skill sets involved in successfully deploying and operating an NFV-based environment. Staffers at cable companies today are not proficient in dev/ops or the operation of large, complex clouds. Despite all the good work done by ETSI and the growing pool of NFV solution vendors, integrating, operating and maintaining these technologies is by no means a trivial task. Human capital may be the highest-cost and highest-risk aspect of this transformation.

At the same time, the growing market for broadband services brings competition from multiple angles. The traditional telecom service providers offer basic connectivity over fixed networks as well as wireless. New entrants such as municipal fiber and Google present additional choices for both consumers and enterprise customers. Cloud-based OTT providers are able to decouple value-added services from basic access, while marketing and deploying those services at cloud speed.

There are technical challenges too. Virtualized solutions for both business and residential customers must scale efficiently to cover millions of locations as well as millions of devices. Scaling the complete NFV process represents a significant operational challenge, though many cable operators have relevant experience thanks to their deployments of virtualized video gateways and other video services. The NFV-based orchestration system must coordinate virtualized services hosted in both core and edge locations, while also manage operations that span multiple network types (HFC, all-fiber and WiFi).

One of the most critical challenges relates to the reliability of the infrastructure and the services. A single virtualized instance can support a large number of customers, including enterprises with stringent Service Level Agreements (SLAs), so the cost of service downtime is prohibitive for the operator. Virtualized services must be deployed on a platform that guarantees the level of uptime typically associated with telecom networks, which implies “six-nines” (99.9999%) infrastructure reliability. The fundamental concept is the same as for NFV deployments in telecom: at some point, virtualized applications will fail and servers will fail, so the infrastructure platform must be capable of maintaining the operation of the services under a wide range of failure scenarios.

In summary, virtualization can enable cable operators to capitalize on new business opportunities and leverage the demand from both consumers and enterprise customers for new, value-added broadband services. Many of the technologies developed for virtualized telecom infrastructure are directly applicable to cable, though significant challenges remain and the most significant of those may be staffing and skill-sets.

What are your thoughts on this? Is network virtualization poised to transform the cable industry or will the main effect be limited to operational cost reduction?

We published a couple of articles recently about the benefits of the Accelerated vSwitch (AVS) that’s integrated into Wind River’s Titanium Server NFV Infrastructure (NFVI) platform.

AVS1.pngSince these two posts were published, several of the Virtual Network Function (VNF) partners in our Titanium Cloud ecosystem have completed the process of validating their VNFs with Titanium Server and leveraging the performance features of AVS. In this post, we’ll draw on their experiences to describe just how quick, easy and rewarding it is to host a VNF on Titanium Server and achieve up to a 40x improvement in real-world performance.

To recap:

In the first article, we explained how AVS enables service providers to achieve the level of performance that they need for NFV-based services, without having to use bypass techniques such as PCI Pass-through and Single-Root I/O Virtualization (SR-IOV). The latter approaches don’t support the infrastructure security and reliability features that represent critical requirements for telecom and cable networks.

In the second post, we discussed how the high switching performance delivered by AVS translates directly into improvements in Virtual Machine (VM) density, which in turn leads to quantifiable OPEX savings for service providers.

Now what?

When we work with a partner that has an existing VNF that they want to run on Titanium Server, their first objective is typically to do a functional test and ensure that the application functions identically on Titanium Server, compared to how it runs on another virtual switch such as Open vSwitch (OVS).  As long as the VNF uses the standard VirtIO Linux driver (and they all do), this is a quick step. AVS is fully compatible with VirtIO, so the existing VNF runs unmodified on Titanium Server. No need for any code changes, no need for any recompilation.

That first step results in a VNF that runs fine on Titanium Server, but it doesn’t deliver a performance boost. To take advantage of the performance features in AVS, an additional step is required and the details depend on the architecture of the VNF.

If the VNF uses the standard Linux kernel I/O, it’s very straightforward. Again, no changes are required to the VNF code and no recompilation is necessary. The developer simply uses the Accelerated Virtual Port (AVP) Kernel Loadable Module (KLM) that has been written specifically for AVS. This is an open-source KLM, available at Wind River’s open-source repository at no charge. There’s no need to maintain a special version of the VNF to use with AVS: the AVP KLM remains as part of the standard load and is dynamically loaded into the guest OS at runtime, just like other KLMs that may be included in the VNF. The only drivers that are actually loaded are those corresponding to the devices in the NFVI platform that is hosting the VNF.

Adding the AVP KLM to a VNF will typically deliver a performance improvement of up to 9x compared to using the VirtIO driver, depending of course on the details of the VNF itself and its actual bandwidth requirements.

If the VNF has been designed to use the Intel® DPDK library for accelerated I/O, much higher performance is possible when using AVS, simply by linking in an AVS-aware driver, which in our experience takes 15 minutes or so. In this case, the developer uses the AVS DPDK Poll Mode Driver (PMD), also available at Wind River’s open-source repository at no charge. Again, there’s no need to maintain a special version of the VNF to use with AVS: once the AVS DPDK PMD has been compiled into the VNF, it’s initialized at runtime as required when the VNF is running on an NFVI platform that is detected to be Titanium Server.

AVS2.pngAdding the AVS DPDK PMD to a VNF will typically deliver a performance improvement of up to 40x compared to using the VirtIO driver, depending of course on the details of the VNF itself and its actual bandwidth requirements.

The AVS DPDK PMD provides another important benefit too: unlike systems which use a DPDK version of OVS, such as the discontinued OVDK, systems based on AVS do not require that the version of DPDK in the guest VNF(s) is identical to the version of DPDK in the host platform (in this case, Titanium Server). This brings significant flexibility to service providers, who now have the freedom to select from a wide range of DPDK-based VNFs without being constrained by the version of DPDK that each one uses.

After working closely with several VNF partners, we have seen AVS support to be seamless, quick and high-value, based on the performance improvements that it brings. The initial bring-up / functional test step requires no change to the VNF. Up to 9x performance (vs. VirtIO) is achieved with no code changes at all, just the inclusion of the AVP KLM in the VNF’s image for dynamic loading at runtime, as needed. And a straightforward recompilation to add the AVS DPDK PMD results in up to 40x performance for DPDK-based VNFs.

By using whichever of the these two open-source drivers is applicable, our VNF partners can fully leverage the performance features of AVS, allowing them to deliver VNFs with compelling performance to service providers deploying NFV in their infrastructure.

We’re looking forward to welcoming new VNF partners into the Titanium Cloud ecosystem and collaborating with them to deliver best-in-class end-to-end solutions for both telecom and cable service providers.

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