For decades, telecom networks have been created with purpose-built, proprietary hardware that is mostly managed using command line interfaces (CLIs), graphic user interfaces (GUIs) or other manual, labor-intensive tools. Network operations staff have built up valuable experience over the years -- to the point of becoming practically irreplaceable, as little new blood got into the network operations business.
The move to a virtualized model -- including network functions virtualization -- is a huge disruptor to this environment. Indeed, some of the biggest obstacles to widespread adoption of NFV will be related to organizational and people issues. You can always make technology work with enough time and money. People aren't so easily changed.
The tools, processes, spreadsheets, habits and skills built up over the years still have a place in a virtualized world. In fact, chances are good that the vast majority of these assets will be able to be leveraged. The characteristics of a good service don't change because the underlying technology changes.
The key issue is whether or not network operators have the mindset and skills in-house (today, at least) to really take advantage of the possibilities that virtualization promises. Everyone looks at Google, Facebook and Amazon and is amazed at how automated their processes are, and how quickly they are able to develop and deploy new services. Expectations are then raised for network operators to follow suit. All they have to do is get the same software and servers as the hyperscale guys, then hey presto -- they're running at full speed.
Easier said than done, of course. Immense cultural issues are in play here. The telecom mindset is to evaluate, trial, test, fix, test again, then deploy. Cycle times of 18 months are considered normal. Fast fail -- the mantra of the web players -- is a completely foreign mode of operation to most network operators. Granted, as a regulated industry, telecom has ample historical reason to move cautiously. Still, a shift in mindset will need to take place if telecom operators are to credibly compete head-to-head with the Internet-centric giants.
Then there’s the problem of skill sets. It's true that network operators are taking on more of an IT look and feel, and that evolution needs to continue. Generic x86 servers and Linux-based bare metal switches are replacing closed, specialized platforms. Puppet and Chef are replacing vendor-specific EMS and NMS. Still, most operators are still in the formative stages of this transformation. It's imperative to pick up the pace.
I don't mean to paint a dire picture about the future for network operators. My sense is that they are fully aware of where they may have shortcomings, and nearly every conversation I have with telecom executives about transformation and NFV touches on organization/people issues. I expect them to take a two-pronged strategy to get up to snuff faster -- one that combines training of existing staff and hiring of new people who bring immediate virtualization smarts. Culture doesn't change overnight, but that change has to start now.