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As service providers of all stripes gathered at the Mobile World Congress 2017 conference in Barcelona, many of them suddenly realized that they are falling behind the technological curve. Customers demanding more agile delivery of services are pressuring service providers to modernize their IT architecture at a much faster rate.

Most service providers have been slowly making a transition to virtual networks that promise to accelerate the rate at which new services can be deployed over a span of time that extends well into 2020 and beyond. But thanks to the rise of turnkey Network Function Virtualization (NFV) platforms and new approaches to building software using microservices, many of them are coming to terms with a rate of technological change that is starting to accelerate. In addition, carriers such as AT&T that moved early to roll their own NFV platform using mainly open-source software are starting to exercise competitive pressure on rivals that rely on legacy network architectures.

To give service providers an alternative to painstakingly building an NFV platform from the ground up, VMware at MWC announced VMware vCloud NFV 2.0. It provides a reference architecture through which much of the management of Virtual Network Function (VNF) software running on top of the platform can be automated.

“We can now help service providers make the transition to an NFV platform in a matter of months,” said Shekar Ayyar, executive vice president and general manager for the Telco NFV Group for VMware.

Paul Davey, CTO for the telecommunications business unit of Atos, said service providers that implement VMware vCloud will see a rapid return on that investment. “We’re seeing in the range of 60 percent TCO reductions for our clients,” he added.

Cisco’s Rolls Out Update Affecting Its NFV Platform

Obviously, VMware is not the only vendor pushing a commercial NFV platform. During the MWC conference, Cisco, an early pioneer of NFV software, rolled out an update to the Cisco Network Services Orchestrator (NSO), which is the core software it uses to manage its NFV platform. A new Layered Services Architecture now enables NSO to be used to support more than 100 million devices on their network.

Charles Stucki, vice president and general manager for the Cisco NFV Business Unit, said the goal is to provide service providers with a software-driven network that is fully programmable and open. That’s critical, he said, because many service providers need to be a lot more agile when it comes to responding to customer requests for new services.

“The network guys can now be seen to be either a hero or a villain,” Stucki pointed out.

But Anand Krishnan, executive vice president and general manager for the cloud business unit at Canonical, said cloud-native technologies, such as microservices based on containers, are already making approaches to NFV platforms that are based on virtual machines obsolete. Service providers that embrace open-source platforms to run VNFs based on containers will find it much easier to build and deliver new services, he said.

“If they try to build a cloud the old way, they will definitely run into trouble,” Krishnan predicted. He added that it’s already apparent that service providers need to evolve their operations to mirror the efficiencies cloud service providers already enjoy.

Nevertheless, given the level of competition between service providers, vendors such as VMware have a real opportunity, according to Scott Raynovich, principal analyst at Futuriom Research. “The issue is, can they make the right product available at an affordable price?” he asked.

Bob O’Donnell, chief analyst for Technalysis Research, said most service providers will opt to play commercial platform vendors against vendors that provide the building blocks they use to roll their own services. “Service providers will make room for NFV platforms, he said, “but they won’t get rid of everything they have. There’s going to be a massive battle.”

The issue now facing all types of service providers is figuring out to what degree they want to rely on NFV platforms that require commercially licensed software fees versus employing open-source technologies they might not have the skills or time to master. Whatever the decision, the ticking of the cloud is going to louder with each passing day.