Author’s Note: There’s a lot of talk and plenty of noise related to NFV in the telecom industry. It’s a time of market transformation with many executives and marketers making claims for how their companies are doing NFV better than others, or how they are ahead of the competition in one or more ways. I think we are missing an important voice: The CTOs. I am talking with my peers from service providers and suppliers to get a sense of what is real. I am sharing these conversations in this series called The Real CTOs of NFV. The title is fun but the intent is serious. Following is my fourth Real CTO conversation with Gareth Noyes of Wind River.

Prayson: Gareth, I appreciate you taking some time today. To start off, tell me a little bit about Wind River’s role in the NFV transformation.

Gareth: Wind River provides the Titanium Server fully-integrated commercial NFV cloud infrastructure solution, enabling customers to guarantee the levels of uptime required for critical network services and for high-value customers. This is needed as they’re all starting to roll out NFV deployments in their networks and moving away from fixed proprietary systems.

The Titanium Server NFV infrastructure, the software platform, is complemented by a wide range of hardware and software products from an ecosystem of partners including Overture. And these are all validated to work together with Titanium Server through the Titanium Cloud ecosystem program. We believe this allows service provider customers to address very specific NFV use cases with proven and pre-validated end-to-end solutions. So that is Wind River’s role in NFV from a product and solution perspective.

Prayson: I know that in discussions we’ve had about Titanium Server, your company has talked about performance and reliability. Would you say those are the main obstacles that Wind River is working to address with NFV? And what might be some of the other obstacles?

Gareth: I think they’re the two key differentiators as you move from hardware-based high-availability platform to a software-defined version of NFV. Through virtualization, you have the additional overhead of performance, and the infrastructure required for high-availability is fairly unique. But I think ultimately what Wind River is able to provide to customers, with that focus on reliability and performance, are four key benefits.

One is that we can protect our customers’ top line revenue through a transition to NFV because we allow our customers to maintain the level of service uptime that they achieved with traditional physical infrastructure. That prevents any impact on their revenue.

The second thing is that as we move to a software-based platform we can minimize OpEx through optimization so our customers can realize the full benefits of NFV.

The reason performance is so important is because we need to make sure that the specification of hardware, and the utilization of the hardware and switches and so on is optimized, so that their OpEx doesn’t bloat.

There are two adjacent benefits customers get from our solution’s reliability and performance. One involves gaining market share through accelerated deployments. A lot of our customers are fighting to be first to market with some of these new services.

Finally, through the architecture we’ve adopted with an open solution, we provide flexibility. The issue here is we avoid vendor lock-in with an open platform.

We talk a lot about reliability, performance, and high-availability, but these are the four things that really benefit our customers.

Prayson: The first two really address helping customers preserve their SLAs and revenue as they make the transition. The second two are more forward-looking and allow customers to provide innovative services and provide them more quickly. That’s really expanding their market and opportunities, right?

Gareth: That’s absolutely right. And I think you have to satisfy both here. You don’t want a solution that enables us to deploy new services that are more costly and therefore less profitable for our customers. You need to at least provide some level of parity for that migration to even make sense. And then have the opportunity for additional services as the rationale for actually going through the transition.

Prayson: You have been at this for a while, working with customers. When do you think that NFV is going to hit critical mass for carrier class deployments?

Gareth: The last 18 months or so we’ve seen a lot of proof concepts and field trials. We believe that we’re on the cusp of the initial deployments really starting to take place this year for the very first use cases such as virtual CPE solutions. And then, we believe that in 2016 we’ll see significant deployment. The activity we have with our customers and partners, along with the market validation has proven that NFV works.

Prayson: That’s lining up fairly well with what we’re seeing in the market. You have been working with a variety of customers and partners. What’s the one thing that surprised you? What’s most unexpected?

Gareth: I think we’ve been able to educate the customers as to the impact of things like reliability and performance on their overall systems. And, even the viability of being able to migrate to NFV systems. So there has been a lot of education in terms of the true skills and perhaps value of an integrated platform.

So that’s one aspect. But from a business perspective, we’re really surprised that we’re not seeing ecosystem solutions that are specifically targeted at cable service providers.

Virtualization can also enable cable operators to capitalize on new business opportunities like dynamic instantiation of CDNs or better self-service portals and so on. Potential ROI benefits for their customers are huge, but I’m not sure the cable companies necessarily have those skills in-house, so we would have expected more focus on that use case.

Prayson: We’re seeing a little bit from the cable operators. But like you say, it’s surprising that it’s not more widespread. But let’s get back to what you were just talking about — education. You were talking about helping customers understand how to do this virtualization. Are they now moving from skepticism to acceptance? Do you see them believing that virtualization can bring real benefits? Or do we as an industry still have more education to do?

Gareth: I think there’s enough momentum in the market that people understand that it’s coming and is going to be real. I think the focus we’ve had is on the proof points and really demonstrating the attributes of the solutions and the value in return on investment for solutions.

So I think we’re past the point of self-denial or incredulity. We’re at the point where people are asking us, "How do I get this done and what are the challenges I need to address?” And that’s a lot of what our education is. It’s not so much on the market side but on the technology, product, and business model validation.

Prayson: Wind River has been in the software business for a long time and some of the products you sell require software development. And that’s one of the areas that the operators are going to have to address — moving from buying all their solutions to developing more of them. Moving from a waterfall method of development to an agile/DevOps methodology. Do you see them making these changes to be able to fully adopt the types of solutions that you’re providing?

Gareth: Yes. I think they are starting to make those changes. And I think there are some benefits the transition is providing them in terms of the shift to software. They can start focusing on the deployment of standard high-volume hardware and standard server infrastructure. I think server infrastructures have become good enough and very competitive with proprietary custom solutions. That allows our customers to focus on the software side of things.

When it comes to NFV, we’re providing a pre-validated underlying platform, so we’re hoping that our customers spend their time creating value in differentiation vs. worrying about the underlying platform level. We feel that’s the value that we’re able to drive to the NFV market in terms of having a very reliable solid underlying platform and an ecosystem that people can build from.

Prayson: You have been involved in the NFV effort since the earliest stages. What did Wind River see in this technology that made you believe there was opportunity?

Gareth: As you say Wind River has been involved in telecom infrastructure business for many years, and our customers include the top 20 telecom equipment manufacturers. What we saw occurring in many customer conversations four or five years ago, even before the term NFV was coined, made it clear that the notion of network virtualization was going to be a critical element.

We had a lot of skills with one common development tool — carrier grade Linux. But we actually bought that competency by investing in a team that had already built and engineered this type of high availability deployment. So we saw in conversations with customers that the need was there, and we invested and built a team that has that total system capability to implement.

So we made that investment decision in that very specific area with a view of NFV becoming a reality, and the business probably will stay aligned behind the technology at this point.

Prayson: That’s interesting. I often say that innovation happens when three things come together. You’ve got a new area of technology, you’ve got some domain expertise, and a real customer problem or opportunity. So, in this case, you were able to leverage your domain expertise in the telecom carrier grade systems and Linux-based systems. You were able to see a problem and an opportunity — and apply this new virtualization technology to meet that opportunity. Is that a fair statement?

Gareth: That’s exactly right. There was a real customer need and pain point, some technical barriers to be overcome and we had solutions to align those to. That was creating a real market pull for the platform that we developed. So, I agree with you, Prayson. A technology-focused problem is sometimes just a hammer looking for a nail. And, I think the business pull was there in this case.

I’ve seen this industry-wide: the mix between the pain points and the transition in the industry, the need to deliver new services much more quickly and at a lower cost and have much more flexible solutions deployed much more rapidly together with the technology that enables it. I think those two go hand-in-hand.

Thinking about the true convergence of IT and telecom systems, there’s clearly adjacent efforts around software defined networking in the data center and then enterprise applications. There’s also an underlying convergence of technologies like OpenStack. But we are just understanding what level of scalability and capability IT systems can teach to the telecom infrastructure and vice versa. There’s a real complement and that’s one thing we’re constantly thinking about. We’re looking at the opportunities from multiple domains so that we understand the problems, but also to make sure that we identify any potential disruptions or opportunities that are coming from adjacent markets.

Prayson: You raise a very interesting point. I think that telecom has a lot to learn from IT in terms of these new technologies like virtualization, building software from components, APIs, and automation. But I also think that the IT side has a lot to learn from the telecom side in terms of communication and network. Cloud technology kind of skipped over the whole aspect of how do you actually connect all the equipment over the wide area network. It seems like Wind River is in a very good position to help bring together connect and compute to solve these problems.

Gareth: That’s exactly right. And you know Prayson, the type of capability Wind River is developing for Titanium Server focuses on high availability, high performance and high throughput that can be applied to things like industrial internet of things applications where we see more local intelligence being driven from device to client systems. These are new architectures for market segments like industrial, medical, and transportation.

They have similar underlying system characteristics to telecom environments that are completely alien to IT systems. So the notion of high availability, low latency, low jitter and very techie requirements like that, become very relevant if you’re building a high-performance global network or indeed a high-performance scalable industrial automation system.

So when we look out toward the future horizon, we see the need for the capabilities we are driving in NFV today being broadly applicable to other adjacent areas that just haven’t yet overlapped.

Prayson: Gareth, that sounds like Wind River has a very interesting opportunity. I appreciate your time very much.

For other entries in the Real CTOs of NFV series, please click here.