NFV’s Emergence

In case you missed it, the world is being virtualized.  Well, at least the networks that increasingly connect people and things are going virtual, as network operators worldwide shift toward software-based networks, using Network Function Virtualization (NFV) as a viable alternative to legacy, hardware-only networks.   This move is not the latest fad, but is a calculated effort designed to deliver new, innovative services more quickly, efficiently and profitably than ever before.

And the experts agree with this direction.

According to ACG, operators that transition to an NFV platform begin saving money in the first year, receiving full payback on the investment in just three years.  Industry observer, IHS sees continued adoption, predicting a 500 percent growth of the overall NFV market over the next four years.

What is Different in a Virtualized World?

Without being painfully obvious, the main difference in a virtualized model is the lack of physical connections between network functions.  As opposed to the legacy, hardware-based approach where physical connections are necessary, in a virtualized world there are no physical connection points.  It is all done by connecting functions through software in datacenters and across a distributed virtual network footprint.  For telecom operators this new model provides compelling benefits in terms of capital and operational savings, and the ability to deliver services more quickly and dynamically than ever before.

While speed is critical, it is also important for new services to provide a meaningful and consistent experience for the enterprises and end-users. Ensuring service quality is no small task, as increasingly services such as VPN, Managed Firewall, and IP Telephony are being delivered across multiple service provider networks spanning all corners of the globe.  It is no wonder that as much as 50 percent of service deliveries can have issues.

The Importance of Service Quality: Testing Beyond Simple Connectivity Checks

In order for network operators to fully experience the transformational benefits of NFV, they must have confidence in their ability to deliver services with the highest levels of quality. Poor service levels equal customer churn, which is bad for business.

Fortunately, in a software-based world the opportunities for testing service quality are much greater than what was possible in the physical, connection-oriented, legacy architecture.  Using a software-centric model, telecom operators can conduct active testing, which allows for testing of service quality in a way that much better emulates the behavior of the real end- customer.  Software-based testing also provides telecom operators with ability to test services delivered in even the most remote parts of their network, which previously was not economically feasible as truck rolls still cost money.  For this reason, active testing, which has historically been added as an after thought in legacy networks, is now possible to include as an integral part of the service delivery workflow.

Today, telecom operators deploying NFV, and even those with legacy networks, have the opportunity to test the actual experience of network performance and service quality. This goes far beyond the traditional way of using Ping as a tool to validate connectivity. This means that testing can be done more completely than ever before, resulting in the best possible end-user experience.

Test-driven and Programmable as the Right Path

So, what should operators do to achieve the highest level of service assurance in a software-based world?

First and foremost, to be effective in a software world, solutions should be born “cloud-ready” – meaning that test solutions created natively in software are much better equipped to test in a software-based architecture.  This allows for a higher level of programmability resulting in easier, and tighter integration with the existing OSS and other necessary service orchestration elements. And, it allows services to be rolled out at the speed of software.

Another critical need is for solutions to play nicely with others. Interoperability and openness is key in this new, emerging world and will be increasingly important as every service provider network has different elements and components.   Today, the ETSI standards for NFV are the widely accepted and specify a recommended approach for how active test components in an NFV architecture should work.  This work within ETSI NFV is a first important step, but there is also more work to do be done, such as achieving interoperability across different test devices, resulting in enhanced levels of service assurance, and service provider confidence.

It is also important for telecom operators to adopt a mindset focused on achieving highest levels of service assurance and end-user satisfaction.  Using a test-driven approach, telecom operators can streamline testing by developing required test cases at the same time that they design the service.   This allows testing to be service-specific, and therefore much more effective to ensure service quality.  Active testing that can be automated effectively allows operators to conduct comprehensive testing before the service is delivered to customers and when the service is updated or modified. By specifying how to test and monitor the service at the time of designing the service, it is possible to bridge the gap between fulfillment and assurance. This produces the highest possible probability for an optimal customer experience, giving the service the best chance for a success in the market.

Summary

While all signs point to a bright future for software-based networks, the future of NFV is incumbent on the effective delivery of services of the highest quality.  By embracing programmable software solutions designed from the ground up to deliver service assurance in a software-based world, operators can conduct continual testing at a service-specific basis across all aspects of the network.  If done correctly, this will allow them to evolve their businesses as well as their networks.

See the article published on the NFV ZONE here.