BT's McRae says NFV is 'unimpressive' but service models and automation are 'transformational'

NFV is unimpressive for most of what BT is trying to do with its networks, but common service models and automation are truly transformational.

BT's Neil McRae, chief architect, said that NFV and other software-based technologies actually make service provider networks more complex, whereas common service models and automation provide deep insights to better manage networks while also rolling out products and services at a faster rate.  

"NFV has been an unimpressive technology for most of what we're trying to do," McRae said. "I think it's still got a lot of maturing to do. If you ask me what's going to be the most transformational change in our industry it's not SDN. It's not NFV. It's this model-based concept with telemetry and network automation. And yes, SDN and NFV are tools that help us with that, but actually they're largely unexciting."

Unlike SDN and NFV, common service models, or model-based concepts, enable BT to create product models across its wider IT infrastructure using TOSCA and some of the work the telco has contributed to the TM Forum, McRae said.

"That allows us to effectively have a standard model for a product for our capability," he said. "Then if vendors want to participate in this, they have to work with our models. It makes life easier for us. It makes it really easy to compare how things really work in our network. We could go from a TOSCA-based model that could turn into YANG, which allows us to do configuration very quickly in an abstracted way."

This automated configuration allows BT to see what parts of the network need to be upgraded, rolled back or left alone when doing network upgrades.

In addition to having vendors design products and applications for its defined needs, common service models enable a deeper layer of automation. BT has been working on automation for three years.

"Really, the whole core thing of this is we can generate much, much better automated configuration," McRae said. "We can deploy, hopefully, in a much more automated way very easily. Then we can use that configuration together with the models to extract data and use network-based telemetry that really gives us a huge insight on what looks really good on the network.

"And it does that in real time, not five minutes from now or 10 minutes from now, which is what SNMP (simple network management control) does or what most traditional network management does."

Common service models and automation raise all boats, including SDN and NFV, machine learning, and, eventually, artificial intelligence. They are also crucial to the new dynamic network services and products that BT is currently working on.

"What is exciting is that the language of these models have created better automation and they are creating control of what we call the network feedback loop, which allows us to know what's going on in the network and being able to react very quickly, whether it's a fault, a provisioning request or it's some other thing that you want to do," McRae said.

The models also let service providers dynamically turn up capacity, as well as create network models, composition models and capability models that enable real time network management.

"For me, that is probably the biggest transformational thing we that we can apply to telecoms," McRae said. "It will reduce opex. It will reduce capex because we'll be able to deploy the network in a much more optimal way than we've ever done before.

"They will allow us to roll out a lot of applications and a lot of products. Deploying NFV and SDN is still hard, it is still difficult, but with this kind of model-based automation it becomes much more simpler."

Among other virtualization efforts, BT has rolled out an SD-WAN service with vendor partner Nuage Networks. Earlier this year, BT announced the launch of a new service to provide global businesses with direct access to IBM Cloud via its network.

BT Group offers fixed line, mobile and broadband services in the United Kingdom and operates in around 180 countries worldwide. It also provides pay TV and IT services.