Virtualization may be the hot topic in telecom, but it's not catching fire with the hundreds of small rural telcos in the US -- at least not yet.
The need to migrate to the New IP, a scalable, flexible, cloud-based infrastructure, is not front-burner stuff for companies that are still trying to figure out how to fund their broadband buildouts going forward and navigate the tricky waters of regulatory change. In fact, when I asked a group of about 75 leaders of these small companies, who were attending a regional meeting of the NTCA, the Rural Broadband Coalition, if they were familiar with network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN) -- two of the core technologies of the New IP -- only four people said yes.
That reaction doesn't come as a surprise to Steve Gleave, marketing director for Metaswitch Networks , a company which had significant success selling softswitches and VoIP to rural telcos and is now trying to introduce them to virtualization as well.
Metaswitch has virtualized all its products -- its IMS core, softswitch, telephony applications server, session border controller and more -- and it has been preaching the value of software-defined networking and network functions virtualization to its rural customer group for about two years now. The company is actually finding success in larger carriers for its efforts to become a software-based company and lead them in the same direction. (See Armstrong Picks Metaswitch, Spark NZ Tests Virtualized VoLTE With OpenCloud, Telstra Global Deploys Metaswitch IP Voice Gear, Metaswitch NFV Customer -- Vip Mobile, BT Uses Metaswitch's Virtual SBC and AT&T's Cloud Future Takes Shape.)
Within its original US stronghold, there is less obvious success. A handful of companies have responded but most haven't yet. So Metaswitch is exploring options for how to help. (See Metaswitch: Telcos Must Get Soft to Survive, Small Telcos Take Different Path to NFV, and Metaswitch Makes Major Virtual Network Move.)
"Here's an installed base that Metaswitch has developed, that trust us," he says. "We feel there is a leadership role we have to take in helping them down the path. The reality is, change is scary. People do fear the cloud, they are worried about security."
In his presentation at two of the NTCA's four regional meetings, Gleave tries to address those fears with humor while at the same time pointing out to the rural telco execs what their larger brethren have already accepted: The need to move faster, to scale networks more quickly, to introduce services in Web 2.0 time, means moving away from traditional telecom hardware and software to cloud-based intelligence.
Steve Gleave Pushing Virtualization
Fear the clown? Don't fear the cloud!
One approach that Gleave is advocating is for smaller companies to get their feet wet by identifying something in their operation that can be virtualized, such as a session border controller, and getting experience there.
"They can pick one thing, and begin letting go of the touch points, where they own the assets, they can see the assets, and put their arms around it," he says. "You have to put your toe in the water."
Similarly, smaller telcos can look to outsource functions to the cloud, such as using a cloud-based contact center or adding a virtual app to their existing telephony application servers (TAS).
"It's not going to be a revenue shift transformation overnight," he says.
Gleave also sees other likely possibilities for telecom moving forward and one such option is for smaller telcos to band together, much as a group of 32 independent telcos did in buying Codero Cloud Hosting, under the guidance of Bill King, president of JSI Capital Advisors and founder of BLM, the consortium that acquired Cordero. (See 32 Regional Telcos Buy Codero Cloud Hosting.)
"I could see a group of five or ten companies that would like to insert themselves as wholesalers to get the job done," he says. In that model, the smaller telco maintains the physical assets of the network and the customer relationships but the services themselves and intelligence to deliver those moves to the cloud.
Gleave admits that many of Metaswitch's customers have turned to his company and asked it to help deliver these services, and that's not an option he's ruling out.
"We are always asked, and there is value if we can do that, but we also don't want to compete with our customers," he says. "Enough people say, 'Look, is there something you can do in the cloud that simplifies our lives but doesn't make you look like an SP?'"
At this point, Metaswitch is focused on helping its progressive customers move forward and continuing its own product development, which is putting the company in the forefront of the virtualization effort, in its product category.
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading