Docomo will deploy commercial NFV in 2016

Completes first proof of concept trials of virtual EPC, working with NEC, Cisco and ALU

By Caroline Gabriel

Few technology platforms have evolved as quickly as NFV (Network Functions Virtualization), at least in terms of a set of common specs which have been embraced rapidly by vendors eager to be part of cellcos' next generation roll-outs. But to deliver the kind of impact on network economics that virtualization promises, it must be deployed on a wide scale by operators. Most carriers are interested and positive, but a few are determined to accelerate actual roll-out, including Telefonica, AT&T and now NTT Docomo of Japan.

The biggest Japanese cellco has worked with long-time R&D partner NEC, as well as Alcatel-Lucent and Cisco, to create a proof of concept for a virtualized evolved packet core (EPC). All three are also part of Telefonica's huge multi-country NFV trials, and, with other vendors, are starting to accumulate important trial experience with major carriers. After the success of this test, Docomo says it expects to deploy services on a commercial virtualized EPC by the end of March 2016 (the end of its fiscal year).

The EPC is the element of the network which most carriers expect to virtualize first. This can be done relatively in isolation from the rest of the system and even in the cloud. NFV moves some or all of the functions of the network from dedicated hardware appliances to virtual machines running on generic hardware such as servers and switches, and creates tunnels between those VMs. That means VMs can be created or moved without reconfiguring the network each time, while there are savings on the cost and complexity of specialized hardware.

Docomo said it had successfully carried out joint verification tests, and that each of its partners had verified "cutting edge" network control mechanisms, in separate exercises. These included highly efficient handling of user traffic and automatic network recovery - to ensure that, in the event of hardware failure, a back-up could be quickly and automatically created on different hardware.

The operator said it would collaborate with other vendors too, emphasizing - like Telefonica at this year's Mobile World Congress - that one advantage of virtualization would be the end of being locked into just a couple of suppliers. Seizo Onoe, CTO at Docomo, also believes it will be essential to work with a range of partners to accelerate progress. "NFV is highly expected to change the ecosystem of network industries," he said in a statement. "But without a high degree of collaboration among the players, such hopes could end up like pie in the sky."

Also on the virtualization front, Alcatel-Lucent said it was working with Mobily of Saudi Arabia on the first commercial deployment of the vendor's virtualized wireless controller - and the first NFV deployment of wireless control.. The lightRadio 9771 Wireless Cloud Element RNC is part of ALU's vRAN portfolio, which is also part of China Mobile's extensive Cloud-RAN proof of concept work.

Alaa Malki, CTO of Mobily, said in a statement: "We have a very technologically sophisticated customer base and we need to stay at the forefront of technological innovation to provide the level of experience that will keep them satisfied." And Amr El-Leithy, president of ALU's Middle East, Africa, Turkey and Azerbaijan region, said: "This is the first deployment anywhere for the virtual RNC by Alcatel-Lucent and it authoritatively demonstrates that carrier grade cloud network solutions is a reality. Today, we have achieved a significant milestone with our virtual controller now handling live traffic in Mobily's commercial network."

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