Adding key benefits to networks

Breaking down the distinctive purposes and fundamental differences of network functions virtualisation and network virtualisation.
Paul Stuttard
By Paul Stuttard, Director, Duxbury Networking.
Johannesburg, 06 Nov 2023
Paul Stuttard, director, Duxbury Networking.
Paul Stuttard, director, Duxbury Networking.

Two networking technologies that are often confused are network functions virtualisation (NFV) and network virtualisation (NV). While both concepts employ virtualisation technologies, they serve different purposes and operate at different layers within a network infrastructure.

In essence, NFV adds virtual functions to the physical network, whereas NV adds virtual tunnels to the physical network.

Both concepts are important as they add key benefits to networks in the form of flexibility, scalability and efficiency.

Of the two technologies, the most significant is NFV, which focuses on virtualising and decoupling specific network functions or services and istypically implemented as software running on virtual machines (VMs) or containers.

NFV promises to increase the flexibility, scalability and cost-effectiveness of network services − such as routing, firewalling and load balancing − by swapping out dedicated, hardware-based appliances for virtual instances operating on common server hardware.

Additionally, it allows for the dynamic scaling, provisioning and chaining of network services, minimising reliance on hardware and boosting network agility.

In this light, NFV is often used by service providers and enterprises to deploy and manage network services. It's especially valuable in scenarios where rapid scaling and service chaining are required.

Looking ahead, NV technology is positioned for continued expansion and advancement across numerous industries.

NFV often involves specific management and orchestration systems that handle the lifecycle of virtualised network functions, such as those of a virtual network functions manager and NFV orchestrators.

NFV has become increasingly important with the rise of 5G networks, which require high levels of scalability, flexibility and performance to unlock new applications for augmented and virtual reality.

According to researcher and author Adam Simmons, NFV is an ideal solution for telecommunications companies. “It utilises cloud computing and virtualisation technologies to disaggregate the hardware and software of traditional networks and drive rapid development of new network services for telcos through a cost-effective and flexible approach,” he says.

“NFV is a key technology enabling wireless carriers to support demand for ever-increasing mobile broadband traffic and new enterprise use cases, such as network slicing.".

Network slicing is a telecommunications configuration that allows multiple networks (virtualised and independent) to be created on top of a common physical infrastructure.

Equally, NFV may also offer the best option for IT and network administrators who want dynamic application network control, but don’t want to change the way their networks are created or how different sites are connected or alter the service contracts supporting them.

This view is supported by Kerry Doyle, a well-respected IT industry analyst and technology writer, who believes the adoption of an NFV approach to dynamic network scaling will support organisational growth models by helping to eliminate overprovisioning.

“Proprietary network appliances that are customised and designed to meet only one network requirement risk redundancy as other services are added. NFV adoption would eliminate the need for purpose-built hardware, reducing CapEx in the process,” he notes.

The focus of NV technology, by contrast, is on abstracting and pooling network resources to build numerous separate virtual networks on top of a common physical network infrastructure. As a result, the logical separation of network resources is the core application of NV.

Essentially, NVseparates the network into virtual segments, each with its own address protocols, policies and topology.

Now in development for close to 10 years, NV was initially intended to help data centre managers address issues such as VM provisioning and enhanced automation, while satisfying the scalability requirements of large data centres.

However, NV has evolved into a broader concept that abstracts the entire network, while encompassing every aspect of the network infrastructure, creating multiple virtual networks capable of coexisting on the same physical network.

From a technical perspective, NV operates at the network layer and involves creating logical network overlays. Technologies like virtual LANs), virtual extensible LANs and software-defined networking (SDN) are commonly used in association with NV.

NV is useful in situations when administrators need to isolate traffic for security, performance or management reasons since it may be used to construct numerous virtual networks on a single physical network. Data centres, cloud environments and multi-tenant networks frequently benefit from this functionality.

Notably, in the case of SDN, network controllers or other methods particular to the virtualisation technology in use are often used to manage and orchestrate NV.

Looking ahead, NV technology is positioned for continued expansion and advancement across numerous industries. For instance, NV will play a bigger part in cloud computing systems and data centres in line with the increasing need for data centre resources in tandem with the growth of cloud services. Expect NV to continue to be a key technology for maximising resource utilisation in this space.

In addition, NV technology will become increasingly important as 5G networks continue to be deployed and edge computing becomes more pervasive, as it is able to build flexible, scalable and efficient networks to serve low-latency and high-bandwidth applications.

By enabling separated network segments, NV must also be considered as a primary enabler for network security. This will gain in significance as security threats evolve and an even greater emphasis is placed on security in virtualised networks together with complementary technologies such as zero-trust networking.

Finally, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are increasingly used to optimise network performance, detect anomalies and enhance security. NV is incorporating and optimising AI and ML to improve networks’ ability to be more adaptive and self-healing.