An issue that is top-of-mind for most enterprise organizations is how to economically and efficiently provide IT functionality in their branch offices. And a top-of-mind issue for many Communications Service Providers (CSPs) is how to compete with Over the Top (OTT) players like Google, Skype and WhatsApp. Is it possible that there is a single solution to these two top-of-mind issues?
Let’s start with the enterprise issue: supporting branch offices. Many enterprises have deployed numerous network service appliances at their branch offices. Network services and appliances commonly installed in a branch include voice services, access routers, WAN optimization controllers, stateful firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and DPI analysis devices. If these functions are implemented on dedicated physical appliances, the result can be a complex, expensive, and difficult-to-manage branch office network. Making the challenge even more demanding is the fact that the vast majority of IT organizations either don’t have personnel in branch offices — or if they do have personnel, they don’t want to.
CSPs are feeling intense pressure from the changing dynamics in their industry, for example, the impact that social messaging applications provided by OTT players such as WhatsApp are having on CSP revenues. According to Ovum, over the OTT social messaging applications cost CSPs $32.5 billion in lost SMS revenues in 2013, which is predicted to reach $54 billion by 2016. Additionally, in 2018, OTT VoIP providers will have cost the global telecoms industry $63 billion in lost revenues. Making this challenge even more demanding is the difference in the culture between a CSP and an OTT player. Most CSPs have been around for decades and they have a culture built around a very time consuming set of processes relative to rolling out new services. That cultures results in most CSPs not being able to respond quickly to marketplace opportunities. The OTT players have just the opposite culture. Most have only been around for a few years and they don’t tend to let processes stand in the way of success in the marketplace.
So, where’s the synergy? Well the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) is the group most associated with the movement to adopt Network Functions Virtualization (NFV). ETSI has identified nine potential use cases for NFV, thorough descriptions of which are available on the ETSI web site.
One of the use cases that ETSI defined is referred to as Virtual Network Functions (VNF) as a Service (VNFaaS). As part of VNFaaS a service provider would enable customers to access VNFs that are hosted on servers in one of the service provider’s Point of Presence (POP). VNFaaS is analogous to SaaS in that the subscriber pays only for access to the service and not for the infrastructure that hosts the service.
So, how have enterprises tried to solve the appliance sprawl that is usually associated with supporting branch office? One common technique is to implement a Branch Office Box, commonly called a BOB, which houses all or most of the required network services. One example of a BOB is a Cisco Integrated Services Router (ISR).
While I like BOBs, one of the limitation of a BOB is that IT organizations still need to acquire, maintain and manage all of that functionality. So how about saying goodbye to BOB and hello to POP? By that I mean, why not acquire all of the branch office services you need from a CSP who provides those services as part of a VNFaaS offering? Since the services would be provided remotely, one objection that comes right to mind is latency. However, assume that there is an appropriately equipped POP within 100 miles of a branch office and also assume that the speed of light in a WAN link that is combination of fiber and copper is 100,000 miles/second. Then the latency is 1 millisecond – which in virtually all cases would be negligible.
I will be the first to admit that VNFaaS solutions won’t be generally available in 2015 and probably won’t be in 2016 either. However, because of the potential value they provide, IT organizations that are planning for the evolution of their branch office networks need to closely watch how VNFaaS solutions evolve.