Next generation of carrier systems going virtual

The latest version of NSN's operations software is designed to make mobile carriers more efficient and agile

The latest version of Nokia Siemens Networks software for running mobile carriers is virtualized, pointing toward a future of fully cloud-based systems that could help operators run even more efficiently and roll out new services more quickly.

NSN NetAct 8, the company's latest OSS (operations support system) software, is the first version of the platform that can be configured as a set of virtual machines. That's part of an evolution away from hardware dedicated to each function and toward the ability to run the OSS fully on cloud infrastructure, NSN says. An OSS includes several functions for running a carrier's radio, core and transport network, such as fault management, performance management and configuration management.

"We're now getting to a point where we can say we can live up to the performance requirements from our customers by running the software in a virtualized mode rather than with dedicated hardware underneath," said Jane Rygaard, head of marketing for NSN's CEM (customer experience management), core and OSS products.

That's a stage many general enterprises reached a while ago, but carrier operations platforms have stricter requirements for performance and uptime than most systems do. And they're getting more strict, according to Rygaard. Where an OSS once could be taken down for a few hours overnight for maintenance, it now has to run full time, she said.

NSN's OSS already runs on standard data-center hardware from the usual server vendors, but most customers still buy their hardware through NSN, which puts together pretested hardware configurations so it can guarantee OSS performance. With NetAct 8, each function can run as a VM. The company is still prescribing resource levels for each OSS function, but not specific sets of processors and hard drives.

This can change the whole role of hardware in carrier data centers, easing the management burden and freeing up resources, according to NSN.

"It becomes a commodity that a certain group of engineers is looking after on a general basis, and then they don't care anymore whether that hardware is used for one thing or another," Rygaard said.

The ultimate goal for NSN and other carrier network vendors is NFV (network functions virtualization), which will turn everything the network does into software running on a pool of commodity computing gear or even a cloud. With legacy infrastructure, it can take two to four weeks to launch a new service, partly because of the time it takes to provision the hardware to run it, said Chetan Sharma, founder and president of Chetan Sharma Consulting. By contrast, Web-based services providers such as Twitter and Google, which in some cases compete with mobile operators, can turn on more computing power and roll out new services almost instantly.

"That's the flexibility that operators are looking for," Sharma said. Carriers also need more flexibility just to keep up with increasing traffic and data demands, he said.

NSN says it's not yet ready to have the OSS run on a cloud because that infrastructure, even a private cloud, might not meet performance requirements. Getting to that next stage will require a lot of testing, Rygaard said.

Virtualization can cut down on capital expenses, make carriers more flexible and help them automate more operations, freeing up resources that can be focused on optimizing the subscriber experience, Rygaard said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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