Telefónica exec claims virtualisation is about “survival” as UNICA comes alive in Germany

Features

Telefónica's virtualisation project UNICA has been given the risky business case of ensuring the operator's "survival", delegates at this year's Broadband World Forum have been told.

In a talk entitled ‘Making the Business Case for NFV’, CITO Antonio Elizondo reveals the full horizontal version of UNICA has been “alive” in Germany since mid-July in an update on the progress of the ambitious virtualisation project.

Previously the operator has deployed a range of “pre-UNICA” VNFs in several of its markets.

This meant vendors providing turnkey NFV solutions for specific network functions and launching each one in an isolated vertical platform.

Functions including virtual evolved packet core (vEPC), virtual route reflector and virtual IP multimedia subsystem have been launched in this way across a number of markets. For example, the operator worked with Huawei to launch a vEPC across 13 markets.

As the operator explained in a whitepaper outlining its strategy published in July, these kinds of roll outs do not require changes to the company’s operating model or the skills of its workforce.

Since the summer, however, the operator’s German opco (headquarters pictured) has been running a VNF on top of the horizontal UNICA platform – a single cloud-based architecture that can host all VNFs.

The first VNF that has been deployed in Germany is virtualised authentication, authorisation and accounting (vAAA).

Elizondo says in his talk that the full UNICA platform is also currently being rolled out in Peru, Argentina and Colombia.

The goal is to complete these launches by the end of the year.

As Telefónica has said before, the goal is a “programmable” network across the entire Group, where capacity can easily be shifted according to demand and new services can be launched more quickly.

Elaborating on the thinking, Elizondo says: “Telefónica is 93 years old in Spain meaning we have invested in lots of different systems and techs. Take into account the group has grown in a very inorganic way, so acquiring the existing operations of many companies in different countries.

“The collection of all that is very hard to manage.

“The problem is we are seeing others making a lot of money on top of us, the OTT players. Software is becoming our differentiation asset.”

Ahead of the ever-growing data traffic and the “everyday” launch of new OTT applications, networks need to be prepared to “adapt even to the unexpected”, Elizondo explains.

Put simply, Elizondo adds, “the business case is survival”.

UNICA is arguably the most advanced virtualisation project in the industry, although Vodafone is attempting a similarly ambitious global project called Ocean.

The end-game, from 2020 onwards, will be using UNICA to support the launches of new services and capabilities on 5G networks, which are set to see their first deployments in 2018 and 2019 ahead of full standardisation in 2020.

Adrian Scrase, CTO of standards body ETSI, thinks 5G will provide a catalyst for virtualisation to be more widely adopted by operators.

Speaking to Mobile Europe, he says: “We’re seeing a convergence between virtualisation and adoption of 5G. When we started NFV people assumed it would be implemented in a 4G environment.

“But it seems synonymous with 5G network slicing. It’s difficult to see how it would be practicable without virtualisation.

“For me, the tipping point is when operators are looking to move to 5G. That is when they will say we will move to a virtualised infrastructure.”

Ultimately, the aim with these platforms is to move beyond simply virtualising existing network functions to allowing developers to innovate on top of them with their own apps and services.

There have already been steps in this direction from the likes of Telenor, which launched a virtualised platform called WorkingGroupTwo which aims to act as an operating system for networks.

However, the more widespread use of virtualisation for this type of innovation may be some way off.

According to Chris Wright, CTO of open source cloud provider Red Hat, a lack of interoperability and unique value will prevent developers from being interested for the time being.

“If you think of a developer building an application targeting a cloud, there is a small number of top tier public cloud providers,” he says.

“Each one has their own way of allocating a virtual machine, instantiating it. They are similar but unique.”

This means that developers can host their applications in the public clouds offered by Amazon, Google or Microsoft and guarantee a broader reach.

Contrastingly, he says, developers will not be interested in tailoring an application for every specific configuration across hundreds of operators worldwide.

To attract developers, some unique value will need to be offered.

“Today I don’t think that super-unique value is there as much as it will be when we get to 5G, and the edge becomes a new form of the cloud with proximity to the device."