How Operators Can Ensure Their OpEx Doesn’t Rival The Death Star

By all accounts, the latest (earliest?) chapter in the Star Wars saga called Rogue One is expected to do very well, even with a production budget of more than a quarter billion dollars. Rogue One tells the story of the Rebel Alliance’s successful mission to steal the architectural plans of the Empire’s new, fearsome weapon – the Death Star – that can inflict destruction at the planetary level. But then we’re getting ahead of ourselves…or are we?

Anyway, a few years ago, in a university far, far away, some enterprising students with apparently too much time on their hands put together a CapEx estimate of what it’d take to actually build the Death Star in Earth’s terms. The conclusion is that it’d take a whopping $852 quadrillion and more than 833,000 years just to produce the necessary steel required to assemble the behemoth. The Empire must own some incredible blast furnaces throughout the galaxy.

That amount is chump change compared to the operating costs, or OpEx, required to keep the Death Star running even just one day, concluded an energy company in England, whose staff must also have a lot of free time. The company factored in several criteria such as staff salaries (almost 2 million employees and contractors), energy required for lights and the laser beam – the Death in the Death Star – and other essentials such as meals. For instance, the estimate literally just to keep the lights on per day is $52 trillion USD for the 192 trillion light bulbs. Add it all up, you get this number or $7.7 octillion USD (7 with 27 zeros).

Back here on Earth, avoiding astronomical OpEx spending like this was a primary driver for service providers forming their own Jedi Council of sorts and proposing the pathway to network functions virtualization back in 2012. The business case was clear and compelling and expressed nicely in this infographic from Deloitte, who published an overview paper on the benefits of NFV and its virtualization cousin, SDN.

Telecom Architecture shift towards a NFV/SDN Environment

Another driver was the idea that NFV and SDN enabled operators to test new services in a highly cost-effective way to fast track the good service trials into production while discarding the failures without incurring onerous burden in time and money spent. ACG Research pointed this out in this interview with RCR Wireless (the full video is worth the time invested):

A major advantage of SDN/NFV is in its opex, which gives the operators the ability to rapidly provision new services. Service roll-out is reduced by an order of magnitude of months to days. Moreover, with fast service roll out, a new service can be tested with a limited set of customers first, and then upon favorable feedback it can be introduced to the entire target market. This can save a lot of headache (and money) later if the service turns out to be not as well received as it was expected.

With compelling advantages such as this, it would seem that NFV adoption should be at critical mass. While there are promising signs that operators are getting serious about putting NFV into production, they are also acutely aware of the unique and complex technical and operational challenges of production NFV/SDN. Our CTO Matt Harper laid out exactly what the networking industry has to deliver for NFV to evolve beyond its padawan stage in his blog a few months back:

NFV won’t happen as currently envisioned unless there are compelling 10x economics driving actual deployments. To justify or make a business case, NFV must make networks 10X less expensive, 10X faster, 10X simpler, etc.

Analysys Mason is quoted in the Deloitte paper as saying, “The technology is the ‘easy’ part. Implementing SCNs (Software Controlled Networks) and maximizing business benefit will require significant planning and a healthy appreciation of what it means to overhaul network operations.”

I agree that overhauling operations is the larger boulder to push up the hill. And most would agree that much of the technology is pretty well standardized and understood. But one technology component plays a critical role in transforming operations and it’s anything but “easy”. That crucial technology piece is management and orchestration (MANO). As we move from proprietary network platforms, each with its own proprietary management software, to software-based network services deployed across shared commodity infrastructure, there must be a common MANO platform.

Remember, for all its complexity and capabilities, the Death Star worked and was relatively simple to operate. Unquantifiable in the earlier Death Star “studies” is the level of standardization and automation built into its design and operations. Similarly, we need to revolutionize operations for next-gen, software-based networks. A common MANO platform with open APIs and standardized models and interfaces not only automates deployment and management of multi-vendor VNFs and network services, it acts as a common orchestration fabric that makes the overhaul of operations faster and less disruptive. The OSS/BSS, service assurance, networking, and IT operations teams can get out of their operational silos and work collaboratively in more of a DevOps model if they have a common management and orchestration platform that can plug and play with their current systems and processes. The lack of a common MANO platform, I’d argue, is the chief obstacle to widespread NFV/SDN deployments.

The good news is that RIFT.io is doing our part by supporting the development of ETSI Open Source MANO, advocating a common information model, and adhering to open APIs to provide seamless integration with legacy infrastructure, OSS/BSS, and every layer of the NFV architecture stack. We’re also making the value of open source available in a commercially support MANO platform.

Now we need the vendors and operators to buy in with their full faith behind SDN/NFV initiatives. As our Rene Tio said once, NFV will only be successful long-term if VNFs and network operators fully embrace cloud principles and hyperscale architecture.” The foundation for embracing those principles is an open, common MANO platform that binds all operational things together.

Just like The Force.