Many — too many in my opinion — in the telecom industry have visions, yet only few have dreams. The difference? A visionary will always depict with painstaking care and detail a situation that already exists somewhere else or will in all likelihood exist, otherwise it would be called a delusion or a hallucination. Now the dreamer. There is someone who will communicate with great passion a situation that does not exist yet but that she will strive to make come true. The dreamer is all about movement, all about execution. I will always pick a dreamer.
So, despite its glorious name, I did not walk in the NFV World Congress in San Jose last week with great expectations: it would be far from the fireworks of the Mobile World Congress or the Consumer Electronic Show. For one thing, it was a slightly more modest venue, but more importantly, the theme had a much smaller scope that, at this stage, only addresses a small part of the information and communication technology industry.
For those who don’t know, NFV stands for Network Function Virtualization and the premise is quite similar to server virtualization in the IT world : the purpose is to run carrier-grade, high availability networking services over general purpose servers and/or switching hardware. The technology is for the most part proven, while standard architectures have been designed in collaboration between global vendors and service providers within the ETSI and OPNFV groups.
As is often the case, the real challenge lies in the implementation and how to execute the transition, both for vendors and their service provider customers. For the time being, most of them are experimenting, with no real full-fledged commercial solution ready for wide scale , in-production deployment on the vendor side, and with pilots limited to certain features, functions and/or geographies on the service provider side.
Deutsche Telekom, in their keynote address, insisted that for them this transition went beyond the network and had significant implications on their human capital as they outlined their vision of a software defined company. People would need to learn a new and entirely different way of doing business. When asked if they would continue to expand the type of software development capabilities they deployed for their new enterprise VPN services, they answered that this is not the intent even if they were able to (which was questionable). They would much prefer to partner with experts and dedicated suppliers, indicating there would probably be a mix of traditional telecom suppliers and new entrants offering strong value propositions in the fields of virtualization, IT and software.
For the most part, the remainder of my day at the congress consisted in listening to very similar visions and challenges, while looking at comparable demos and marketing messages on the various vendor booths, including prominent IT players (HP, Intel, Vmware) and telecom vendors (Alcatel-Lucent and others_who_should_not_be_named). Clearly, I was getting bored. That is, until I finally decided to visit my colleagues at the Alcatel-Lucent booth.
There I was greeted by two jovial and confident gentlemen, who offered me and many other visitors, including customers and analysts, a striking demo of Alcatel-Lucent NFV solution, featuring CloudBand, Motive, Nuage SDN and Bell Labs components. You can view the video here of the same demo filmed during Mobile World Congress 2015.
Many confessed that this was the most relevant, advanced and complete demo of an NFV solution they had seen on the show. But beyond the prowess of showing a live integration of that many components and the ability to demonstrate in real time features such as placement, scaling (upwards and downwards), or self-healing, my eyes and mind remained stuck on something else, more basic, more obvious : the graphical user interface.
Having worked with ng Connect for a while, but also having published an application on the App Store (in spite of my limited software development skills but thanks to the unique, developer-friendly and game-changing environment that Apple had put together), I know how critical the user experience is to any market-winning solution. And looking at the NFV Ops Center interface, how pretty and tidy it was, how intuitive the navigation and various commands were, just how easy everything looked, I could not help but picture myself in a network command and control center. I would sit in front of this wide screen, monitoring the network, troubleshooting issues or ensuring maximum quality of service, and having fun at it, confident that each and every single touch on the control screen would help deliver a better user experience to my network customers.
And this dream lingered with me for a long time as I was driving back from San Jose, feeling proud of what my colleagues had done and confident of what our company can achieve.