November 2015: A Greater Role for Mobile Devices in NFV and SDN

Network Function Virtualization (NFV) and Software Defined Networking (SDN) are new hype-children of the mobile industry. Both NFV and SDN are built on cloud computing and IT virtualization principles with the promise of increased infrastructure utilization and service agility. Many service providers have yet to embrace NFV and SDN because they disrupt existing network architectures and operational models. While some operators like AT&T, DT, Inmarsat, Softbank, Telefonica, Telstra and Verizon are aggressively pursuing NFV/SDN initiatives, it will take five years or more before fully fledged solutions are widely adopted in the marketplace; unless they are accelerated by over-the-top (OTT) players. In the medium to longer term, we believe that the role of the device as a virtual network function will grow in importance for specific low latency 5G applications such as those associated with the Tactile Internet, and initiatives being promoted by influential companies, such as the Fog Computing initiative being promoted by Cisco for IoT. The Tactile Internet and Cisco’s Fog Computing initiative will be investigated in more detail in upcoming articles.

Currently the mobile industry is particularly focused on standardization and open source development initiatives for NFV and SDN solutions, such as those pursued by ETSI, the 3GPP and the OpenStack community. These initiatives are particularly focused on the evolution of mobile networks, service platforms and software systems, but underestimate the role of advanced devices such as smartphones, M2M units and tablet computers, by essentially treating them as intelligent end-points.

Smart devices should be virtualized as part of the NFV/SDN environments, to capitalize on their compute, memory, and I/O capabilities. The App Store phenomenon demonstrates the compute power of smartphones as does the availability of low cost memory by companies like SanDisk, (such as its 128GByte SDMicro memory chip). In addition, smart devices provide the “ultimate I/O” for mobile services by providing both network connectivity and user interfaces.

While it is impossible to accurately predict the salient features of the mobile industry in five years, there are many market considerations that support device-centric NFV/SDN architectures. Two examples include the following:

  • Bandwidth demand is likely to outstrip supply for the foreseeable future, and much of this bandwidth will be associated with video content. Intelligent content and service distribution strategies are being developed and will impact the service orchestration mechanisms associated with SDNs and the virtualization strategies for NFVs. It is likely that in many cases the most efficient architecture will have the services and content stored directly on mobile devices. This has already been demonstrated by over-the-top (OTT) solutions offered by Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft.

  • OTT players are generally positioned at the peripheries of mobile service ecosystems, namely in the application and device layers. This has proven effective in reducing mobile operators’ control of the services delivered over their networks. The widely touted value proposition for SDNs is to arm network operators with the ability to federate resources and optimize service orchestration and distribution. On this basis it stands to reason that mobile devices are integral to future SDN architectures.

With NFV and SDN initiatives being driven by network operators and equipment vendors, it is understandable that the role of mobile devices is inconspicuous in the reference architectures. Perhaps it requires players like Qualcomm and Samsung, who straddle the device and network worlds, to raise the profile of mobile devices.