CableLabs takes on virtualization with new working group

Virtualization frameworks are a key point of discussion during an SCTE Cable-Tec Expo breakfast. The panel on virtualization includes, from left to right, Amdoc's Oren Marmur, CableLabs' Don Clarke, and Cox Communications' Jeff Finkelstein. (Mike Robuck/FierceTelecom)

ATLANTA—After a slow start, the cable industry knows it needs to jump into virtualization with both feet, but the question for some time has been how?

To that end, CableLabs has started a new project called the Access Network Virtualization Group to hash out the cable industry's virtualization framework, according to Don Clarke, principal architect of network technologies at CableLabs.

Clarke, who joined CableLabs about four years ago, brings a unique perspective to the cable operator industry after being on the ground floor of BT's pioneering efforts on network functions virtualization (NFV.) Clarke was also one of the founders of OPNFV and is a member of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute NFV ISG leadership team and chairs the Network Operator Council.

The need for a cable operator industry framework came up during a Tuesday morning breakfast sponsored by Light Reading at SCTE Cable-Tec Expo. While distributed access architecture (DAA) and distributed CCAP are pushing cable into the virtualization realm, there's no real consensus to date on a virtualization framework.

While some cable operators are conducting virtualization trials in the field and in labs, and some have even deployed NFV, cable has lagged behind the telco industry when it comes to adopting virtualization on a wide-scale.

"The dilemma we face and we still continue to face, is there are so many activities going on around virtualization," said Cox Communications' Jeff Finkelstein, executive director of advanced technology. "We got into it (virtualization) sort of as a dipping our toes in the water and feeling the water was cold, and taking our foot out and dipping it in again, it's still cold, taking our foot back out.

"Now because of the virtualization and our requirements in our own hub sites and facilities it's leading us towards a true business problem to solve, and the question is how to we leverage, stand on the shoulders of giants like AT&T and others who have done a lot of the upfront work and leverage that, or do we go in and do we reinvent the wheel and take a different approach to it? I think that is the point in which we're at, and there are efforts underway today that are going to give us a chance to noodle through it a bit and hopefully take a common path that we can all follow."

On the breakfast panel, Amdoc's Oren Marmur, vice president and head of NFV, said there is concern about fragmentation across the cable industry when it comes to virtualization, which means that smaller cable operators need to decide what reference design they'll use and hope it's the right one.

Panelists also discussed the plethora of open source groups and standard bodies in regards to open source. Comcast, for example, is a member of ONF, OpenStack and ONAP, but there's no real consensus across the cable industry in regards to putting its collective weight behind a unified effort.

"We're putting together the access network virtualization working group for precisely that reason," Clarke said on the panel. "Concerns have been raised by the MSOs of fragmentation. They're looking at this landscape and all these different bodies, standards groups, and they're saying as a small operator, what do we do? What do we reference?

"So I think what we're going to be doing as the access network virtualization working group is very quickly identify those standards, those bodies, that are critical to the cable industry ."

Clarke said that unlike the telcos, the cable operator industry can pull its resources together through CableLabs, which is a cable operator-backed consortium that does R&D and creates specifications for cable. While some carriers, such as AT&T, back CORD (Central Office Re-architected as a Datacenter) Telefonica and BT have chosen not to get involved with CORD.

There are currently eight members of the Access Network Virtualization Group; Cox, Charter, Liberty Global, Izzi Telecom, Comcast, Videotron, Shaw Communications, Telecom Argentina and Australia's NBN. The CableLabs members only group had its inaugural call on Oct. 5 to start the process of charting the virtualization landscape for MSOs, Clarke wrote in an email to FierceTelecom. The first objective is to have an initial technical analysis completed by January.

RELATED: Open source is not 'one size fits all'

"The telecom industry is fragmented and that's why you're seeing fragmentation in the industry," Clarke said on the panel. "So we in cable can look at the bodies that are making the most progress, the ones that are most aligned with our goals in the cable industry and we can s put a stake in the ground. We can say 'These are the things that we want to focus our reference on,' and we want to make those decisions pretty quickly with very active engagement.

"I have to say the energy coming from the MSOs in the working group is phenomenal. It's really taken me by surprise how quickly the industry's moving now and trying to get a grip on what is the common vision, a common framework. This is simply generating a debate, exposing it to the wider industry and getting feedback."

Clarke said initial technical analysis report in January would be a first cut of what the group has identified as the primary areas of focus for cable's virtualization game plan. From there, the working group and CableLabs will expose that work to the industry at large to gain additional feedback.

The working group is focusing on key elements such reliability and security, and looking at the pain points that the telcos went through when they embarked on their virtualization journeys to avoid some of the same mistakes.

"There has to be regression testing of every other component in the infrastructure," Clarke said.  That's a nightmare. It's costing millions of dollars each time there is an update.

"So those are the sorts of things we want to avoid by learning from the industry that's already out there with those pain points. Getting those pain points fed into us, and learn from what has been done already, but more importantly identify the things we want to focus in on to deliver stuff successfully for cable."