There seems to be very little middle ground when it comes to which camp people are in regarding the use of universal customer premises equipment (uCPE.)
During this week's Layer123 Network Transformation Congress in San Jose, California, the topic of uCPE was teed up during the opening keynote by conference chairman Roy Chua, founder and principal of research service AvidThink. Chua defined uCPE as a white box that can run virtual network functions "with some kind of OS that only a few providers have today." Open source operating systems, most notably AT&T's DANOS, are not available in the Linux Foundation just yet, although it has said last year and this year that it plans to do so.
"The hope is that with universal CPE is you can run multiple VNFs, and cloud-native functions as well when they are available, in production," Chua said. "You should be able to run those on your favorite white box of choice, orchestrated and make it perform and monitor at scale. That's the dream, and we're not there yet."
To which Adva's Prayson Pate, who was sitting in the audience during Chua's remarks replied: "Yes, we are." Chua acknowledged that Pate would be making the case for uCPE later that same day.
Universal CPE is a jack-of-all-trades for service providers and their enterprise customers. IHS Markit defines a uCPE as a device providing a "pico cloud," including compute, storage and switching capable of executing VNFs such as virtual firewalls, SD-WAN, virtual WAN, virtual application delivery controllers and optimization appliances.
The uCPE market is projected to grow from $7.7 million in 2017 to $1.02 billion in 2022, which is a cumulative $1.9 billion market over the six years from 2017 to 2022, according to a report last year by IHS Markit's Michael Howard, executive research director, carrier networks.
To be in the uCPE camp, a service provider needs to a true believer in NFV. NFV on uCPE enables users to realize the benefits of the cloud by replacing closed appliances with their choice of software that can be hosted anywhere in the network on their choice of open hardware, according to Pate's presentation.
"NFV is real," said Pate, who is CTO of Adva's Ensemble division. "Why can I say that? Because it's being done."
And uCPE deployments are taking place as well. Adva customer Masergy has had uCPE white boxes deployed in its networks for over three years on six continents.
Colt Technology Service, which is also an Adva customer, announced last year that it was prepping for the roll out of uCPE as part of its cloud and NFV-based Stratus platform. Orange Business Services and GTT also have their own flavors of uCPE.
Service providers can opt to go with virtualized CPE or uCPE depending on where the functions need to go based on cost performance and each operator's requirements, according to Pate.
"It's not a theological discussion," Pate said. "It's an engineering discussion. Should you have a pure play COTS white box server or a hybrid server? Verizon is deploying a pure play COTS server. They buy commercial servers from a variety of vendors. If you look at their competition, AT&T with FlexWare, it's a hybrid (model) that combines a switch chip and a server blade. There are advantages to both."
Which one you pick will depend on the requirements. If you need a very low-end deployment, then chances are you going to need the very cheapest white box you can get. But if you need capabilities like high throughput or encryption, you may need a the hybrid."
Large operators, such as Verizon and AT&T, are their own integrators, while Tier 2 and Tier 3 service providers may go with a systems integrator or value-added reseller (VAR.) UCPE offers service providers the choice of selecting various components for uCPE or buying them from one vendor.
In either case, Pate said service providers are getting best of breed solutions that can be changed later.
"You don't have to put the whole thing together, but at some point you may need to take out the SD-WAN from one vendor and another and stick in another SD-WAN from another supplier," he said.
The business case for uCPE includes replacing a stack of boxes with a virtualized version that works for today's services and tomorrow's.
"That business case has to work, and it does," Pate said.
Other drivers for uCPE include a faster time to spin up new services with software upgrades instead of replacing the boxes. While it could take months to get a new box shipped and installed via a truck roll, uCPE boxes can be drop-shipped over night.
Because the boxes have LTE interfaces, customers can turn the boxes up the day they get them and then use LTE as a back up connection once the wireline service goes live.
A flexible pricing model is also a perk of uCPE, according to Pate. Operators don't need to have a large inventory of boxes in their warehouses and they can buy VNF licenses as needed from the VNF vendors.
"If somebody goes off or closes an office, you reclaim that license and stop paying for them," Pate said. "So that radically changes the cost equation for deploying services."
In order to get the full value of uCPE, operators, suppliers and customers need to work in tandem, according to Pate. A customer can come to the operator with a problem or need in order for service provider and supplier to work on a specific solution.
"We (the operator) can give you (the customer) a trial, something like six weeks, and if that works, then we'll productize and add it to the rest of your site," Pate said. "But, we're not going to make a big investment until we know what we're proposing can work for you. That is a fundamentally different way of operating."
Are we there yet?
While Pate makes a compelling case for uCPE, it hasn't reached the mainstream after several years of incubation. Maybe that's because service providers haven't mastered NFV just yet, they don't have the budget to work with a system integrator or have the in-house knowledge to sort through the various components and options that are on the market today.
Another uCPE challenge is that service providers must deliver uCPE functionality that is competitive with options available from the broad, and highly competitive, SD-WAN and SD-Branch supplier community, according to Lee Doyle, principal analyst for Doyle Research, in a FierceTelecom article earlier this year.
Adva will be making a uCPE-related announcement next week.