Virtualizing the central office: Building a foundation for innovation

As service providers look to deliver more services closer to their mobile, residential, and enterprise subscribers, the central office is gaining importance in telecommunications service providers’ digital transformation efforts. PCMag estimates that there are more than 25,000 central offices in the United States alone. These offices connect service providers’ access networks to their metro and core networks. And while significant efforts have been made to modernize central offices over the past several years, the purpose-built, proprietary hardware traditionally used can limit agility and innovation. The next generation of services—including those depending on 5G networks—require a different way of thinking: a virtualized central office (VCO) based on software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) technologies.

We expect the most effective VCOs to have modernized edge architectures built on an open, pluggable framework that will help service providers stand up and deliver more advanced mobile, residential, and enterprise services more quickly.

A group of partners, including Red Hat, began working on a VCO framework in June 2017 at the OPNFV Summit in Beijing, developing a community version of the VCO that onboards traditional residential and enterprise services onto an open source platform. That live demo featured a consumer premises equipment (CPE) on the keynote stage in Beijing that connected to a VCO in Raleigh, North Carolina.

In September at ONS Europe in Amsterdam, the OPNFV community group, including Red Hat, took VCO to the next level in a keynote presentation with a demo of VCO 2.0 that focused on mobile use cases.

“For 5G, it really becomes a necessity to move things further out, to get closer to our consumers so we can meet the latency requirements of the use cases that we’re looking to do there, things like autonomous vehicles, drones, AR/VR,” Heather Kirksey, vice president, ecosystem and community, The Linux Foundation, said in the keynote introduction. The demo focused on the evolution of the access network from LTE to 5G and included virtualizing a central unit/distributed unit (CU/DU) split and making a 4G LTE call over a 5G infrastructure.

Key benefits of a VCO

Why are VCOs a necessity? It starts, actually, with the data: In its Global Cloud Index, Cisco predicts that “annual global data center IP traffic will reach 20.6 zettabytes (1.7 ZB per month) by the end of 2021.”

Central offices today may struggle to keep pace with this growing demand. With the advent of 5G networks, virtualization and containers are expected to become increasingly important so that applications may be deployed more efficiently and more quickly across a variety of infrastructure types.

At the same time, 26 percent of service providers that responded to Telecoms.com’s annual industry survey for 2017 said a top threat to their long-term success is increased pressure to lower prices and profit margins. If that’s true, they are likely to need new ways to trim both capital and operational expenses, and virtualizing the central office with an open infrastructure may be a step in helping them achieve this goal. An OPNFV report recently noted that open source-based VCO deployments can offer up to a 43 percent lower total cost of ownership than traditional central offices.  

Other VCO benefits may include:

Increased agility: Growth can be challenging to service providers, whether it’s planned or unplanned. A VCO model provides the scalability, manageability, and automation of infrastructure that can help service providers keep pace with growth and market changes. By using container technology, applications can be strategically deployed and moved across environments to more easily keep up with demand.

Enhanced customer experience and value: To remain relevant in an increasingly competitive environment, service providers need to launch, deliver, and scale new services quickly. Open source innovation can help providers create compelling new services and speed time to market, providing a better customer experience.

Most of today’s central offices often are not well-suited for modern services or innovation, and the coming data explosion will further expose their weaknesses. By adopting a VCO approach, service providers can build a stronger foundation for modernization, innovation, and growth.

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