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Network Functions Virtualization: On the Path to the Future of Service Delivery

By Peter Bernstein June 13, 2013

Driven by the undeniable benefits of virtualization, as the transformation of the way services are delivered online accelerates there are few hotter topics than the moves of data center operators to Software Defined Networks (SDNs) and the closely associated and complementary initiative of Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) for service providers. 

While you may have heard of SDN, NFV is a term that may not be familiar. What follows is an introduction to NFV and why it is likely to be a critical part of service delivery in the future.

What is Network Functions Virtualization?       

SDN was created by researchers and data center architects. In contrast, NFV was created by a consortium of service providers. It now has its own NFV Industry Specification Group (ISG) formed with the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), an independent, non-profit, standardization organization in the telecommunications industry. 

The reason for the focus on the concerns of operators is summed up in the original NFV white paper which describes the problems service providers are facing as the world becomes more software-based, along with a call to action and some  proposed solutions.

As the whitepaper explains:

Network Operators’ networks are populated with a large and increasing variety of proprietary hardware appliances. To launch a new network service often requires yet another variety and finding the space and power to accommodate these boxes is becoming increasingly difficult; compounded by the increasing costs of energy, capital investment challenges and the rarity of skills necessary to design, integrate and operate increasingly complex hardware-based appliances. Moreover, hardware-based appliances rapidly reach end of life, requiring much of the procure-design-integrate-deploy cycle to be repeated with little or no revenue benefit...

Network Functions Virtualization aims to address these problems by leveraging standard IT virtualization technology to consolidate many network equipment types onto industry standard high volume servers, switches and storage, which could be located in Datacenters, Network Nodes and in the end user premises. We believe Network Functions Virtualization is applicable to any data plane packet processing and control plane function in fixed and mobile network infrastructures.

In short, NFV looks to aggregate resources across networking, compute and storage. The good news is, as the paper explains, the solution already exists: high-end, virtualized computing resources. What it means, and why this is complementary to SDN, is that the combination of virtualized computing resources with storage and programmable switches allows Network Operators to add to their solutions portfolios while avoiding vendor lock-in and forced upgrade cycles.

Challenges and what NFV brings to the table

The challenges NFV is designed to address include:

  • Portability/interoperability
  • Performance tradeoffs
  • Migration and co-existence of legacy and compatibility with existing platforms
  • Management and orchestration
  • Automation
  • Security and resilience
  • Network stability
  • Simplicity of operation
  • Seamless integration of multiple virtual appliances onto existing industry stand servers and hypervisors

It is a long list, but doable. In fact, some of the values NFV brings included what is at the top of everyone’s wish list, i.e., speed, agility and cost reduction.

Benefits of NFV that can be realized by network service providers because of the centralization of designs around commodity server hardware include:

  • Avoiding designs involving one-off installs of appliances that have different power, cooling and space needs which simplifies planning.
  • Better resource utilization since resources are allocated only as needed by each feature /function.
  • A reduction in “Truck Rolls” and hence a large operational expense.
  • Ease of repurposing existing capabilities to improve performance. 

This NFV online community will be providing continuing coverage of this exploding area. You are urged to bookmark the home page and visit early and often to stay up-to-date on NFV. 

In addition, if you want a primer on NFV to get you started the video here by Spirent is a fast way to get up to speed (so to speak) along with reading the whitepaper.

As the world becomes increasingly software-centric and virtualized, solving obstacles for getting the efficiencies and value of out of enterprise data centers, along with their seamless connectivity and interoperability with evolving network operator infrastructures is a work in progress. There are multiple issues to be addressed and significant opportunities for all members of the rapidly transforming ecosystems.  

NFV, by using commodity hardware allows operators to provide high-performance and secure capabilities while enabling them to better manage costs and resource allocation. The combination of key parts of both SDN and NFV is the future on how services will be delivered in the future; now is the time and this is the place to be informed on developing news, trends and expert insights. 

Edited by Alisen Downey
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