KPN’s SDN/NFV Programme: What Lessons Have Been Learned?

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Dutch carrier KPN is one of them. Having launched a carefully-planned SDN and NFV transformation programme in 2015, the past five years have seen great progress – and at the same time, highlighted the areas where a few calibrations may just be needed. 
  
“We are no longer in the mode of pushing the technology – we need to connect to the business,” said Bob Smeets, KPN’s Lead Architect for network virtualisation, speaking at the SDN NFV World Congress in 2019. “In the first few years we were pushing a ‘Yes we can’ mentality – but why were we doing that? Now, we are entering the programme into a second generation – not just technology but business as well.” 
 
The ‘Yes we can’ mentality was fully justified – technologically speaking, KPN definitely could. The carrier’s SDN/NFV programme, known as GO Virtual, began in 2015, and the original plan was to work incrementally. Rather than opt for the full and sudden transformation that some carriers chose in the early days of SDN and NFV, KPN’s programme started by focusing on the tech and processes, moving through ‘generations’ to gradually expand the programme’s influence to all areas of the business. 

Some key areas of focus on the programme so far have been a drive towards portfolio agility – helping to offer a personalised experience to customers – as well as building loosely coupled architecture, a common automation approach across the customer journey, and creating cloud-native, disaggregated network functions to support runtime requirements. 

With over 20 million lines and connections across broadband, mobile, voice and more, these runtime requirements are considerable. So how has the journey been? And what’s changed? “We have re-looked at our virtualisation programme in a wider KPN context, because we felt it was time, after three years, to see if we are on the right track,” said Smeets. “We have re-aligned with the principle for an open, layered architecture in which we decouple, automate and expose the services that make up our network”. He mentioned four areas where experience has told KPN to look differently at what they are doing with SDN and NFV: 

1. Aligning NFV and IT roadmaps to a similar container technology. “We don’t want VNFs or network services to run if there is not a clear containerisation roadmap ahead of them. Containers can provide the operational benefits we were hoping to achieve in areas where virtualized network implementations have failed to do so. This means we are a lot more stringent in the software we select.”
  
2. Consolidating separate IT and VNF stacks and approaches. “The way to do this is to model them as resource pools that are optimised for specific classes of workloads. We want to avoid proliferation of too many VIM stacks – and this approach allows us to create a common look-and-feel infrastructure for our own IT, network or external applications. “For the first time, this allows KPN to stop differentiating between NFV and IT platforms – as NFV has become just another class of software that we can run on our common infrastructure.” 

3. Creating a differentiated approach for IT and NFV workloads. Workloads are classified as low, medium or high, and each category now benefits from a specific execution model in our common infrastructure. The Medium and Low classifications – standard IT applications for example, or diameter routing agents, are kept as standardised and decoupled from underlying hardware as much as possible, whereas high-performance, while low-latency workloads (for example, UPF, PGW, or CDN) are built on a cost-optimized stack, perhaps with a view of moving them to the edge in future. 

4. Securing a solution for NFV workloads with performance guarantees - “We have done a lot in the past few years to integrate NFVI and NFV components and to tackle performance concerns typical for medium and high workloads,” said Smeets. Refocusing on a pre-integrated software stack that can deliver performance according to specification allows KPN to focus instead on the real commercial job of providing a reliable, high-performing network. 

What does this mean for KPN’s programme? “We are refocusing our efforts away from the platform and towards automation – creating ready-to-use blueprints that readily provide network services,” said Smeets. “We need automation to expand beyond the NFV world into the existing environments.” Another area KPN is focusing on is improving the NetDevOps tech stack, providing better quality, more relevant tools that frees up development teams to work with automation in mind. 

Speaking of tech stacks, a capability gap among the supplier landscape can be a major problem for telcos trying to transform. KPN is dealing with this in a unique way – by dipping a toe into the venture capital world. While there’s nothing unusual about M&A activity in the telecoms world, KPN has taken this in a new direction by creating four years ago a €70m Corporate Venture Capital Fund (“KPN Ventures”), a wholly-owned subsidiary of the company that looks to take minority stakes in early-stage tech companies. The objective of KPN Ventures is to promote outside-in innovation, create strategic partnerships with innovative technology companies and achieve a healthy return on invested capital by ultimately aiming for external exits and not acquisitions. This model also allows KPN to develop in areas where there is a gap in the supplier map. 

This has shown great impact with the edge orchestration platform Cloudify. KPN Ventures participated in Cloudify’s 2018 funding round and secured a vital new partner for the carrier’s SDN/NFV orchestration efforts. “(This type of cooperation) means that not only do we get a strategic return, we can cooperate at a technical level as well. We applied this to Cloudify and we are happy with this model – it’s not just a supplier-customer relationship, it operates at a much deeper level,” said Smeets. 

Bob Smeets was speaking at the SDN NFV World Congress 2019: the leading event for network transformation and the tech that’s driving it. Click here to watch a video of his full presentation, entitled Network Virtualisation and Cloud Orchestration: Update on KPN’s Digital Telco Ambition. 

Now known as the Layer123 World Congress 2020, this year’s event will take place in The Hague from 12 to 15 October 2020. Click here to read more about the event,