Catalyst Shows How to Become a Platform Provider


It’s easy to say that network operators should use network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN) to turn their networks inside out and become platform providers like Amazon or Google. But actually doing it is something entirely different.

Unlike over-the-top (OTT) providers, communications service providers have a lot of baggage, like billions of dollars’ worth of physical networking equipment and siloed operational and business support systems (OSS/BSS). They also have highly trained staff, long-term commitments with partners, regulatory requirements they must meet, and a high degree of trust built over years with their customers. They can’t just cut over to new cloud-based systems all at once.

“The best way to think of NFV and SDN is as a superset of cloud, as a more intense set of requirements – similar and related in nature to cloud requirements but expanded to support a more dynamic, distributed and diverse domain,” says Dave Duggal, Founder and Managing Director, EnterpriseWeb, and Co-leader of a TM Forum Catalyst project that’s building a platform prototype for network operators. “[The network operator’s] virtual functions are not a typical enterprise workload. They are very sophisticated applications with complex lifecycles. They’re highly regulated, and testing and validation has to be more rigorous to comply with carrier-grade standards.”

It’s harder than it looks

Now go a step further and open these highly regulated cloud platforms to customers and partners so that they can mix and match functions and services in any way they choose, and you can understand why it is much harder than it looks.

“If this stuff was easy, network operators would already be out of the game, and the OTT providers would have won,” Duggal says. “The cloud vendors are ahead technologically, but they haven’t solved all these problems. The network operators have an opportunity to lead with NFV – they can’t win by following.”

The Catalyst project, Enabling the digital services marketplace with automated onboarding, which is being demonstrated this week at TM Forum’s Innovation InFocus in Dallas, has widespread support from service providers, with AT&T, China Mobile, Orange and Verizon all championing. Participants include Amdocs, Bristol is Open, Cloud Best Practices, EnterpriseWeb, Huawei, IBM and Oracle. It is a merger of several award-winning projects and is aimed at automating the entire lifecycle of a virtual function from procurement and onboarding to testing and validation, deployment, configuration and assurance.

The power of a metamodel

“Notice that we’re saying virtual function, not virtual network function,” Duggal says. “We want to talk about a bigger scope of carrier virtualization.”

As service providers evolve their thinking, they are recognizing that SDN and NFV, cloud, IoT and enterprise are all related distributed-computing challenges and that the unit of work in this new world is a virtual function, which can represent a wide range of capabilities beyond network functions. To automate the onboarding and lifecycle management of a virtual function, we need a common model of these diverse applications, a ‘metamodel’.

Orange is contributing an automated onboarding and procurement lifecycle management ecosystem and a user story to the project. These include descriptions of all the key stakeholders and the overall value fabric.

“The aim is defining design and packaging principles, derived from the user story, for NFV and associated recommendations on moving away from the current human-driven onboarding and procurement processes that are characterized by multiple pain points – for example, lack of automation and long cycles of processes – to a metadata-driven process that enables automation in procurement and onboarding,” says Dr. Tayeb Ben Meriem, Senior Standardization Manager, OSS/OA&M, Orange.

“The use of metamodels commonly shared across the stakeholders is expected to dramatically reduce the lifecycle duration as well as pain points. It will also permit the smooth and automatic application of common metadata templates across touchpoints between the stakeholders of this newly designed onboarding and procurement ecosystem.”

Ben Meriem adds: “The goal is zero-touch NFV onboarding. Removing this bottleneck paves the way for all stakeholders to take the full advantage of the business promises of virtualization.”

It takes a village

One of the Catalyst projects that have come together to work on developing a standard metamodel won an award for being the most technically innovative project at TM Forum Live! 2016 for the way it explored the business and operational aspects of a virtual network function (VNF) package. Its goal was to help advance the thinking around how to transform traditional telco procurement processes, which can take months, to a new paradigm where procurement and onboarding is done in hours or even minutes. This level of automation requires standards to promote multi-vendor interoperability as a foundation for the digital Operations Center of the Future (OpCF). The project also developed a clear view of the NFV ecosystem, the roles within it and its lifecycle management.

This phase brings together standards from TM Forum Frameworx and TOSCA (Topology and Orchestration Specification for Cloud Applications) a data modeling language developed by OASIS for describing a portable application package, along with ETSI NFV concepts, in a metamodel that EnterpriseWeb is contributing to TM Forum. To demonstrate these ideas the Catalyst is drawing from other past Catalyst projects (CloudNFV, Dynamic APIs and Future State), which presented a working model of the OpCF that connected stakeholders in an end-to-end lifecycle of digital services using dynamic APIs.

The new joint project converges technology with standards to showcase a solution that offers a practical deployment path for operators who want to offer platform-based services. And while the Catalyst has started by looking at how to onboard VNFs from supplier partners, the marketplace it is developing can be extended to include all kinds of virtual functions, for example, Internet of Everything services and applications from partners in a digital ecosystem.

Multi-SDO interoperability

The idea is to provide an extensible and adaptable foundation for multi-SDO (standards-development organization) interoperability. The metamodel presents a ‘minimum viable standard’ required to be described in a virtual function package, with all of its elements, their relationships and behaviors. The metadata captured in the package schema is needed to support end-to-end automation, dynamic lifecycle management and accelerate service delivery.

A metamodel eliminates the time and expense of manually integrating partner capabilities and re-integrating them for every update and upgrade, all of which slows down a service provider’s operations. It provides for non-functional information necessary to manage the entity, including, for example, metadata about licensing, maturity and metrics models and service level agreements.

The Catalyst will show how to put the metadata into action to automate the procurement and onboarding processes, as well as facilitate the lifecycle management of the components and their composed services in an ecosystem environment.

Business value, fast!

Verizon is co-championing the Catalyst, contributing an overarching goal to enable same-day onboarding of virtual functions. The key is to focus on business value generation, as fast as possible, for everybody involved – suppliers, service providers and customers, says Umashankar Velusamy, Senior Member of Technical Staff, Verizon. That’s where the virtual functions marketplace comes in – so a virtual function can be automatically on boarded on to a service provider environment with zero touch.

“We mean for this to be end to end, from the moment a service provider recognizes a need for a virtual function, all the way to delivering a service using that virtual function,” he explains. “That means the service provider has to be able to discover the right virtual function; license it; procure it; validate it; test it; deploy it; integrate it with OSS/BSS stacks; compose and chain services using it; test, deliver and scale those services; and subsequently manage all changes, with in-built security, analytics and sound governance – all of this, completely automated. Given the lack of standards covering the entire lifecycle, this is not a simple goal.”

He adds: “One has to look at the entire onboarding lifecycle, identify bottlenecks and pain points, and then address them with flexible, evolvable standards that define both the package and the interactions. This is not a feat that a single SDO or a single company can achieve. This requires industry-wide collaboration across service providers, suppliers and SDOs.” 

Building a marketplace

Ultimately the goal is to build a virtual function marketplace that enables intelligent onboarding automation, Velusamy says, adding that Verizon is contributing recommendations back to TM Forum’s Zero-touch Orchestration, Operations and Management (ZOOM) project for how to move beyond simply demonstrating this kind of marketplace to actually creating one.

“We are proud to be co-championing this onboarding automation journey that’s just beginning towards a mighty goal, which we hope will be bolstered by collaboration with multiple SDOs, service providers and the best suppliers with the most innovative products who love challenges that transform the industry,” he says.