Mobile Future Forward: Network Evolution: Q&A with Dr. Hassan Ahmed, CEO, Affirmed Networks

Mobile Future Forward: Network Evolution: Q&A with Dr. Hassan Ahmed, CEO, Affirmed Networks

Mobile Future Forward – Seattle – Sept 24th Connected Intelligence Era

Registration (limited seats)

In partnership with Amdocs, Ericsson, Intel, Mio Global, MoBack, Oracle Communications, Qualcomm, Synchronoss, and Tata Communications.

We are looking forward to welcoming you to our Mobile Future Forward Summit next month. We are doing interviews with some of the thought-leaders leading up to the event to give you a glimpse of the upcoming brainstorms. LTE has been the quickest deployment in the mobile industry history. However, the pace of change is so dramatic that the industry needs to come up with solutions on-demand. NFV, SDN, Cloud, 5G are being discussed at all major service providers. Japan is already planning a 5G rollout prior to 2020 Tokyo Olympics. EU is investing heavily to reclaim lost momentum. Affirmed Networks is in the middle of this evolution. We caught up with Mobile Future Forward speaker and industry veteran – Dr. Hassan Ahmed, Chairman and CEO of Affirmed Networks to get a pulse on the network architecture evolution trends that will define the next 5-10 years.

MFF: NFV gets thrown around in a lot of network evolution discussions. Why NFV? What does it mean to the operators and the larger ecosystem? And why should we care about it?

Hassan: This is an excellent question because it helps us to look past the buzzword and ask where the fundamental demand for NFV really comes from.  Unfortunately it also requires a lengthy answer.  Some may view NFV as just a natural evolution of technology in the networking space but that really misses the point.  In fact, the transformation of networks away from a collection of isolated, custom built elements to a holistically orchestrated set of virtualized software functions is central to realizing the evolving business model of operators in the face of rising market demand for internet services.  The move to NFV also represents one of the largest transformations in networking since the shift from TDM to IP technology. To illustrate the point, let’s examine the impact of NFV on mobile networks, arguably one of the first places we see the technology being adopted.

Data on mobile networks is growing by leaps and bounds.  Application richness is growing rapidly as well with video leading the charge.  Scaling networks has historically been a hardware game, i.e. building more and more powerful network elements as chips get faster while keeping the network architecture and software intact.  Unfortunately this approach has run its course because mobile data today is growing faster than the rate at which hardware can be commoditized.  Effective network scaling is now a game of parallel software that can take advantage of the computing performance curve.  By reducing expensive custom elements to virtualized software functions that operate on data center servers, the cost of scaling is dramatically reduced.  This is the first answer to why NFV.  However, this isn’t the whole story.

Even after operators invest in scaling their mobile networks, IP service revenue flows over the top with the operator failing to participate in the service revenue equation (except for access, of course).  Today’s networks are very inflexible.  The entire service architecture of the network needs to become more intelligent so that service treatment can allow operators to enhance the revenue in their business models.  With service function chaining and orchestration, NFV brings the necessary flexibility to simultaneously simplify network operation (thereby reducing opex) and increase service velocity for new revenue.  So the market really demands cost effective scaling and enhanced service intelligence.  Together, they create a compelling case for network transformation and NFV answers the call.

As you can imagine the impact on operators and the ecosystem is far reaching.  NFV done well (since not all supposed NFV products are done well) dramatically shifts the operators network costs, simplifies network operation and allows the operator to derive new revenues from the internet economy.  The business model impact is significant.  Costs come down and revenue increases.  However operators need to be wary of approaches that preserve the inflexibility of the legacy network by simply virtualizing old products.  Fresh approaches are necessary to realize the business model benefits.

The ecosystem as a whole will be impacted as well.  Operators will have more choice to “mix and match” applications rather than being beholden to a small number of vendors.  In fact the fortunes of many of the legacy vendors will shift as IT companies and new software-centric vendors start to participate in the network infrastructure.  The landscape of providers in the “intelligence” of the networks will look quite different 5-10 years from now than it does today.

For all of these reasons, I believe NFV, which will play out over some time, is a transformative force akin to the impact IP had on TDM networks.  That’s why we should care.  A decade from now, networks will be built, managed and monetized differently.  Business models will be much richer and the landscape of vendors will shift significantly.  The full impact of NFV will restructure the industry.

MFF: As network consumption grows and as it moves more and more to video, how does NFV help? Can it enable new business models?

Hassan: As we’ve already discussed, NFV impacts both cost and revenue.  Video growth is challenging network capacity and NFV enables operators to cost effectively add capacity rather than succumb to profitless prosperity.  However, I think your question is more about revenue and new business models that NFV’s service flexibility can enable.

NFV done well gives the operator the ability to quickly spawn new services.  This allows for increased innovation and the emergence of new business models. Specifically in the case of video content, today the operator primarily focuses on content delivery.  However there are many opportunities to create user experiences around events that can create a business relationship between the operator and the content provider.  Consider an event like the Tour de France which appeals to a relatively small affinity group compared to say the Superbowl.  Offering premium access to races with differentiated billing to subscribers who purchase a “Tour de France” viewing package is unthinkable in today’s network because the lengthy service creation process is too expensive for serving a small audience.  However NFV can reduce the service creation to minutes and allow the operator to profitably capitalize on hundreds of “medium tail” sports and entertainment events through content partnerships.  This is just a small example of how new business models can be forged when the tools are made available to the operator.

MFF: How should an operator think about offering cloud services to the consumers or their enterprise customers? Do they have shot at the game against Microsoft and Amazon?

Hassan: I think the operators have an excellent shot at the game.  To be sure, some players like Amazon are leading the industry today.  The revenue derived from cloud services today is impressive however I believe that we are very early on in the game.  Much of the growth lies ahead of us.  As operators move to a software centric network architecture they bring some critical advantages around managing scale and delivering reliable networks – arguably traditional strengths of the operator.  When combined with service architectures that enable customers to control and customize the network capabilities they receive, a very compelling product is created. 

If you believe that most computing/applications will move to the cloud over time, then the operators have a significant opportunity to capitalize on as this market grows.  However success will require moving quickly.  The large internet companies have shown what’s possible and the operators need to create networks that allow them to move in “internet time.”

MFF: The legacy network architecture hindered in launching new services quickly. How do things change with NFV, SDN, Cloud? What kind of impact does it have on the capex and opex for the operators? Is there a net gain or are we just shifting costs?

Hassan: We have discussed already how NFV brings considerably more service intelligence to the network.  With service function chaining and orchestration, the speed at which new services can be created and deployed is greatly enhanced.  This definitely creates a net gain.  Opex is significantly reduced on a number of fronts from service creation and provisioning to space and energy cost.  The cost of creating or modifying services comes down dramatically as the time to do so reduces to minutes from months.  Significantly less labor goes into the NFV service model and that is a net gain.

Capex also declines significantly for a number of reasons.  The most often stated one is the much lower cost of data center servers compared to custom hardware platforms comprising today’s network elements.  In addition when servers are pooled in data centers, capacity is more efficiently managed requiring less hardware purchases.  More efficient hardware deployment also leads to reduced space and power needs.

NFV represents a meaningful reduction in the cost of owning and operating a network.

MFF: How does rest of the ecosystem benefit from these network changes? Does it lead to more competition or collaboration?

Hassan: As you might imagine, it leads to more of both.  Certainly, the NFV framework enables more innovation because it greatly simplifies the ability to add functions and capability to the network.  The ease of experimentation is also greatly enhanced so we will see an expanding ecosystem fostering greater collaboration to enable increased and faster service innovation by the operators.  Service transparency across operators should also result in cross-operator collaboration.

We will also see greater competition.  Competition will not just be among operators differentiating on service offerings but among vendors.  The move to NFV invites participation from IT companies that have historically had data center relationships with the operators but have not been suppliers in the network infrastructure.  NFV blurs the line between IT and network and market share will shift away from some legacy providers to traditional IT suppliers.

NFV enables major structural shifts in the industry and heralds an exciting time in telecom.

MFF: What’s your view of 5G? What features do you think should define the next generation?

Hassan: That is a tough question.  So much thought is going into 5G today trying to connect the art of the doable with perceived need.  If past is prolog, then we will see applications and usage emerge that we didn’t imagine.  However what we can imagine today is a rising importance of the network as applications and computing move to the cloud.  We can imagine ever more powerful entertainment services and we can imagine a two order of magnitude increase in the number of connected devices as the Internet of Things emerges.  Device to Device or vehicle to vehicle communication will enable lifestyle changes that we haven’t yet conceived of.  In order for such a vision to be successful, the network must change meaningfully.  Orders of magnitude more data capacity, data rates, connections combined with low latency to enable real time applications become fundamental requirements of a 5G network.  Accommodating disparate networks must be seamless.  In order to realize these capabilities, much of our attention focuses on the RAN and technologies that can create the data rates and capacities that we imagine.  However, the network service architecture has to become increasingly flexible as well to create and service these disparate applications and provide user control.  Today’s NFV evolution will create a foundation for 5G’s service architecture.


Chetan Sharma