Vodafone's Heeran: Time to move on from NFV; focus instead on cloud

Vodafone's Fran Heeran says his company is focusing on cloud-native technologies instead of NFV. (Vodafone)

Vodafone's Fran Heeran is pretty much done with NFV and ready to bear down on cloudification.

Heeran took over the reins of Vodafone's virtualization effort in July of last year when he was hired away from Netcracker. A recent title change reflects Heeran's and Vodafone's focus on cloudification.At the time of his hiring, Heeran held the title of group head of network virtualization, SDN and NFV, but his title changed to group head of cloud and automation this past June.

As its name implies, network functions virtualization has led to service providers decoupling components in their networks by virtualizing elements, such as firewalls, in virtual network functions. At least, that's the short version of NFV.

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While virtualization has been a huge boon to service providers such as AT&T, Telefónica and Verizon, it led to entanglements in hybrid networks for service providers. Cloud-native, which is what "cloudification is all about," seeks to deliver improved benefits to service providers by using microservices, virtual machines and containers instead of virtualizing functions and components.

With cloud-native, carriers can split disaggregated systems into even smaller, independent microservice functions that can scale up or down as needed. Cloud-native also improves efficiencies while allowing operators to turn on new services in a fraction of the time it takes today.

In February, Vodafone announced it was going with NEC and Netcracker for its domain orchestrator to support its transition into a telecommunications cloud provider. Vodafone joined the Open Networking Automation Platform (ONAP) last year and Heeran has a seat on the governing board. Vodafone was an early proponent of software-defined network and NFV via its Project Ocean initiative

In this Q&A, which was conducted via email and lightly edited for clarity, Heeran provides his take on NFV, cloud-native and open source communities.

FierceTelecom: Is NFV living up to its potential? If not, what needs to change?

Fran Heeran: I think the industry needs to look beyond traditional NFV as it’s really about cloudification now. We can’t operate in a NFV silo, as it cannot deliver tangible benefits on its own and simply virtualizing legacy or traditional applications will not deliver anything close to the full benefits.

FierceTelecom: Setting aside virtualization, do service providers need to focus more on cloudification instead?

Heeran: We’ve been clear for some time that the industry needed to move past virtualization and embrace true cloud. Providers need to redefine their engagement with their customers by offering a true-cloud environment into which our partners can then deliver applications—this is something we’ve been doing with our IT and Network clouds.

FierceTelecom: Why is it important for service providers to move to cloud-native, what needs to be done as an industry level and what is Vodafone doing?

Heeran: The real transformation efficiencies will be gained from truly shared infrastructure, fine-grained component scalability and advanced automation—all of which require cloud-native architectures and environment to be fully realized. Vodafone has put in place the specifications for our cloud-native environment and we are working with our partners to ensure applications are designed and delivered into that environment.

FierceTelecom: Are vendors dragging their feet on cloud-native?

Heeran: We’re not seeing the progress we would expect in cloud-native network functions. Perhaps vendors are more focused on new revenue streams and portfolios, rather than architecting existing ones for cloud-native.

FierceTelecom: Vodafone is working towards containers and microservices this year?

Heeran: Yes. We have defined our container environment for both network and IT workloads, as we look to bring as much consistency as possible to our technology estate.

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FierceTelecom: Do you think the industry is still fragmented when it comes to open source and standards bodies?

Heeran: Yes, unfortunately. Automation is the latest area where we see the potential for fragmentation if we don’t align quickly. Thankfully ONAP is starting to gain more momentum in this area and both vendors and operators are aligning. However in general it’s a constant threat that we need to pay attention to, especially around open source. The industry needs to seriously think about consolidation when it comes to open source, as the proliferation of projects raises risk of failure and lack of focus.

FierceTelecom: Can you describe Project Ocean and what's on the roadmap this year for it?

Heeran: Project Ocean was initially launched in 2016 to introduce virtualization and cloud technologies into our network. Earlier this year, Ocean was subsumed into a larger and more ambitious vision as Vodafone looks at how cloudification can transform and bring consistency and automation to its entire technology estate, which includes network, IT, and enterprise services.

FierceTelecom: How is Vodafone using AI, machine learning and automation?

Heeran: Primarily we’re using AI and automation to improve our customer experience and network operations. For example, we are deploying AI across both service and sales touch points and simplifying the access and use of our services, as well as simplifying and automating standard processes, in both operational and support areas, including IT and network operations, and administrative activities.