At SCTE, the 'radical change' of virtualization looms large

NEW ORLEANS -- Speaking during the SCTE Cable-Tec Expo keynote panel here, CableLabs President and CEO Phil McKinney declared DOCSIS 3.1 the main theme of this year's tech show.

Speaking in the more private confines of a show floor booth several hours later, however, he acknowledged that network virtualization could change a lot of plans.

"It's a radical change," he said of virtualization. "You're taking what is today racks of proprietary gear, and you're now going to basically run Linux servers in some form of cloud infrastructure. And what used to be proprietary silicon is now going to be in software. You get the benefit of speed of change. I don't have to go out and touch and rack new gear if I want to put some new feature in."

McKinney recalled that CableLabs demonstrated such network function virtualization (NFV) two years ago, at its winter conference in Orlando, Fla. The industry research consortium basically took a $35 chipset and turned it into a DOCSIS modem with software.

"The modem itself was extremely dumb," he said. "We ran all the routing info back in the cloud. You could say I want to add a new kind of packeting filter, or I want to add packet prioritization, and you could do it right there at the server. That's an example of NFV, where I'm dummying the hardware and moving all the sophistication to the cloud."

Of course, McKinney made these comments mere feet away from where new DOCSIS 3.1-capable modems and cable modem termination systems (CMTS) modules were being demoed. 

Many of the companies that manufacture such proprietary gear, like Arris, are well aware of the cloud's potential and have made substantial investments in cloud-based virtualization. But the check might arrive faster than a lot of folks suspect.

Indeed, at a breakfast panel event here focused on NFV and software defined networking (SDN), Craig Crowden, senior VP of network engineering for Bright House Networks, described his MSO as being in the "pre-SDN" phase," using "scripted automation" with existing tools. 

"We have phase two of true SDN in our lab now," he said. "We'll start rolling it out in the first quarter of 2016."

Separately, Cox network architecture chief Jeff Finkelstein said the operator has recorded a 53 percent annual growth rate in demand on its network -- setting the stage for a software- and cloud-based response. "We have to take the complexity out of the edge and integrate it into the core," Finkelstein said. By "abstracting" the access network, Finkelstein added, "We have the ability to do some very interesting things. It gives us visibility into the home and the identity of each device. We can separate children's traffic from parents' traffic from business traffic. It helps us get traffic to the appropriate location in the cloud."

McKinney points to Comcast' X1 platform as the working prototype for cable network virtualization. But I found lots of vendors on the SCTE show floor provisioning for cable's future, which will stretch from virtualization to cloud to a wide range of advanced networking technologies.

Fresh off its $125 million purchase of Envivio, for example, Ericsson is hawking its own end-to-end cloud-based video solution to vendors that includes, among other virtual things, a cloud-based DVR.

Meanwhile, Universal Electronics, the dominant vendor in pay-TV remotes, is building chipsets to hedge for a future in which a sizable portion of customers simulate remote function via mobile IP devices.

And SK Broadband said its purchase of Cisco's new c-BR8 positions the carrier on the "migration path" to NFV and SDN.

As Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) CTO Tony Werner explained during his keynote panel, advanced network technologies like the cloud is now "here to stay." --Daniel