Orange Polska remains cautious on virtualisation as scepticism lingers over reliability

Features

Operator Orange is not known for being averse to risks, with its glitzy annual Hello technology show more like something Google or Facebook would hold, but on virtualisation it has continued to take a cautious approach compared to the more ambitious and bullish projects of Vodafone and AT&T.

While Orange Polska has served as a defacto testbed for virtualisation products, Rafal Dziedzic, Director of Technological Transformation Strategy at the telco, tells Mobile Europe that the operator is not as sold on the technology at the scale its multinational rivals are. “We are not quite ready to commit in the way AT&T has committed,” he says.

As part of its virtualisation strategy, the operator has been offering to Polish customers a software defined VPN for business, which allows features such as a firewall to be added dynamically.

The company is also planning to introduce virtualised customer premises equipment. It was announced at Orange’s Hello show in April, with the operator saying that some of the functions of its Live Box router would be virtualised and moved into the network, allowing the sharing of data, technical resources and services.

Orange believes that this will dramatically reduce the physical interventions required in the physical boxes.

Since January, the operator has also been trialling AT&T’s ECOMP (Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management & Policy) software platform, which allows providers to design and operate “software-centric” networks. 

Dziedzic explains that Poland was an appealing place for initial launches of such technologies for several reasons, including it boasting a skilled workforce that was already advanced in thinking about virtualisation.

He says virtualisation is necessary to achieve the necessary scale that will be needed in future as well as to launch new services.

“Future services will mean we will have to push functionality to the mobile edge; the only way to do that is virtualisation techniques,” he says.

But while Orange does accept that virtualisation is the right direction, it is not without caveats.

“We intuitively feel that [the industry] needs to go that way,” says Dziedzic. “We buy the arguments AT&T puts forward on needing scalability and time-to-market but we want to see a more concrete proof.”

What is the risk? In particular, Dziedzic says it remains to be seen if some virtualised infrastructure can match the availability and reliability of existing infrastructure. In particular, he mentions edge and aggregation routers. He says: “Until there’s proof of that it’s not going to happen. But in the long term, most likely it will be so.”

In fact, Dziedzic says it is likely that a hybrid network between traditional black boxes and virtualised infrastructure will exist for some time. He doesn’t rule out some functions remaining non-virtualised indefinitely, although he does not specify what these will be.

Accordingly, Orange does not plan to implement virtualisation across all of its opcos in an overarching approach similar to Vodafone’s Project Ocean. Dziedzic says: “The idea is each country will have its own infrastructure, but the thing that might be shared is network and service management."

[Read more: Vodafone looks to minimise hold-ups as it battles with group-wide SDN project]

He adds this is likely to take the form of a shared service that is available to opcos if they elect to use it, rather than it being mandated centrally. “I think it’s a better way,” he says. “It’s a less risky way.”

Dziedzic says there are a lot of “unsolved issues” with becoming a pan-European infrastructure provider. “The signals we’re getting from telcos that are doing that is that it is not that easy, so it kind of confirms a more conservative approach.”

He doesn’t rule out this changing in the future, but says that for now pragmatism reigns. Dziedzic says: “We’ll take smaller steps where we can prove early successes."