Cable playing the ‘fast follower’ toward virtualized, distributed network architectures

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WideOpenWest’s recent announcement that it is currently distributing and virtualizing parts of its network is seen as a major step forward for the cable industry in general.

DENVER—Cable operators and vendors here at the SCTE Cable-Tec Expo argue that their industry is making steady progress toward virtualization and distributed access architectures—efforts geared toward reducing network costs while concurrently allowing operators to introduce new services more quickly.

“Everyone is doing virtualization to some degree,” said Cox’s Jeff Finkelstein said here at the “Virtualizing the Cable Architecture” session from Light Reading. Finkelstein is Cox’s executive director of advanced technology.

Charter’s John Dickinson agreed, noting that cable operators in general are moving toward SDN and NFV technologies much like their telco rivals including AT&T and Verizon. “There’s not much difference between us and the telcos,” said Dickinson, Charter’s VP of advanced commercial engineering.

But Dickinson acknowledged that AT&T, specifically, has been leading the charge in virtualization in telecom, having already virtualized roughly 55% of its network on the way toward its goal of virtualizing 75% of its network by 2020. “Being a fast follower [to the telco operators] has been beneficial to the cable industry,” he said.

Although Cox’s Finkelstein and Charter’s Dickinson didn’t provide many specifics regarding their virtualization plans, both said they are currently working to virtualize various network functions with the goal of commercially launching those efforts in the coming years. Specifically, Dickinson said Charter is working to virtualize operations including cloud DVR services, firewalls and CPEs, and he said the company is hoping to have some of those initial virtualization efforts finished and launched by next year. Cox’s Finkelstein, for his part, said the company is working to virtualize some video encoders alongside its CCAP, as well as other operations, but is working in a window of roughly 2-3 years.

DAA and Remote PHY

Interestingly, representatives from Cox, Charter and other cable players pointed to cable operator WideOpenWest’s recent announcement that it is currently distributing and virtualizing parts of its network as a major step forward for the cable industry in general. Specifically, through Nokia’s Unified Cable Access solution, WOW is hosting both the MAC and PHY layer of a CMTS or CCAP at the edge of its cable network, as noted by Light Reading. Work on the effort is starting in Chicago and Cleveland, Ohio, this year, expanding to WOW’s wider network next year.

And it’s clear that other operators are taking notice of this action. A session here at the SCTE show yesterday covering distributed access architectures (DAA) and Remote PHY specifically was overflowing with attendees, such that the SCTE had to open two more rooms for the event. Show attendees were treated to slides and audio from the main room piped into the overflow rooms.

Finding a virtualization framework

In their discussion on virtualization, Cox, Charter and other session panelists this morning warned that cable operators engaging in virtualization efforts need to make sure that they have a plan and roadmap for their work, and that they create or obtain some kind of orchestration framework to hang their SDN and NFV projects onto. “You’ve gotta have a basic design in mind that you’re going to follow,” Cox’s Finkelstein explained.

Indeed, the lack of a framework, as well as non-interoperable VFN pieces, created a “zoo” of problems when Amdocs first began working to plug virtualized functions into its systems two years ago. “When we had to onboard new VNFs, it was a pretty tedious process,” explained Oren Marmur, an Amdocs VP and head of the company’s NFV business. Even today, “there’s still a lot of work to do.”

A number of session panelists pointed to CableLabs’ SNAPS platform as one way the cable industry can organize and unify around distributed architectures and virtualization. Fleshed out over the course of this year, SNAPS (SDN/NFV Application development Platform and Stack) aims to “make it much easier for NFV vendors to onboard their applications, provide transparent APIs for various kinds of infrastructure and reduce the complexity of integration testing,” according to CableLabs. And CableLabs is leveraging its newly overhauled Kyrio subsidiary to handle integration and testing on the platform.

And CableLabs isn’t alone. Casa’s Jeff Leung confirmed the company is currently working with an unnamed cable operator to test a virtual CCAP product, with an eye toward deploying it potentially next year. Other vendors, including Nokia and Arris, also have discussed their work toward virtualizing cable services and supporting distributed architectures.