NFV to advance significant change

Network Functions Virtualisation will take standard IT virtualisation technology to the next level.

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In today's networks, hardware life cycles are becoming increasingly shorter, thanks to modern innovations such as virtualisation and cloud technologies.

Nevertheless, in order to launch new network services, investments continue to be made by corporations in a variety of proprietary hardware appliances, which not only compete for space and power in the data centre, but add layers of complexity in order to meet deployment, integration and application objectives.

The problems are particularly evident in telecoms and service provider networks where they are compounded by the increasing costs of energy, capital investment challenges and the rarity of skills necessary to operate increasingly complex hardware-based appliances.

Saving the day

The solution comes in the form of Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV), a new-generation technology with the potential to advance significant change in the way telecoms networks are built, operated and managed.

A number of communications service providers have thrown their weight behind NFV, which aims to take standard IT virtualisation technology to the next level. It will achieve its objectives by consolidating many network equipment types into industry-standard, high-volume servers, switches and storage repositories that can be located in data centres, network nodes and on end-user premises.

This involves implementing network functions in software to run on (mainly) existing hardware that can be moved to - or consolidated at - various locations in the network as required, without the need for large-scale new equipment purchases.

A wide range of network elements and functions have been proposed for virtualisation, including mobile core networks, deep packet inspection (DPI) architectures, session boarder controllers (SBC), security appliances and server load balancers.

Virtualising these and other vital network functions has the potential to deliver many benefits, including reduced equipment costs and lower energy consumption through the exploitation of economies of scale.

Importantly, it could also enable network appliance multi-version and multi-tenancy, facilitating the use of a single platform for different applications, users and tenants. This would allow network operators to share resources across services as well as different customer bases.

NFV is expected to enable a wide variety of ecosystems and encourage openness. For example, it will open the virtual appliance market to pure software entrants, small players and academia, encouraging new services and new revenue streams to be optimised more quickly and at much lower risk.

Fundamental modifications

A key benefit of NFV is its potential to radically alter the way service providers design future networks as they strive for increased flexibility. In this light, service providers expect the accelerated adoption of NFV to significantly reduce both the cost of building their networks and the cost of network operations. However, for the adoption of NFV to take root on a broad scale, many industry watchers believe it will have to explore and optimise the symbiotic relationship that potentially exists with software-defined networking (SDN) technology.

Research group Gartner is on record as saying that together, NFV and SDN could "revolutionise communications service providers' businesses as they primarily impact carrier network infrastructure and data centre markets".

Swedish market analyst, SNS Research, predicts that combined, the global NFV and SDN market will be worth approximately $4 billion in 2014, with a compound annual growth rate of nearly 60% over the next six years.

Both NFV and SDN have burst on the telecommunications scene in the past year, representing the culmination of efforts to break up vertical proprietary stacks in telecoms technology. The principles underlying both began to appear in network standards and software recently, effectively priming the market for change.

SDN allows network administrators to manage network services through the abstraction of lower level functionality. This is done by decoupling the system that makes decisions about where traffic is sent (the control plane) from the underlying systems that forward traffic to selected destinations (the data plane).

A number of communications service providers have thrown their weight behind NFV.

While NFV is highly complementary to SDN, they are not dependent on each other. Network functions can be virtualised and deployed without an SDN being required and vice-versa.

Nevertheless, NFV is able to support SDN by providing the infrastructure on which the SDN software can run. What's more, NFV aligns closely with the SDN objectives to maximise the use of industry-standard servers and switches.

By building network functionality into commodity hardware, service providers will be able to simplify network service introduction, enable multiple applications on a single network appliance and reduce overall deployment and operational costs.

On the technology front, there remain some challenges to widespread NFV adoption, including the implementation of NFV elements which interoperate with each other and also with network elements in installed (legacy) networks. These include links to existing telecoms operational and business support systems.

Looking to the future, NFV will most likely create business model challenges associated with how network equipment vendors charge for their products. Currently, the majority of the equipment sold into the lucrative telecoms markets the world over come as integrated systems with applications running on proprietary high-availability middleware and optimised hardware platforms.

Migrating to an applications software model may be highly disruptive to existing revenue streams and profit margins for certain vendors without a viable NFV/SDN vision.

Martin May

Regional director (Africa) of Extreme Networks.

Martin May is the regional director (Africa) of Extreme Networks. The author of the book: “Everything you need to know about networking”, he is a leading authority on infrastructure security using NAC, IDS/IPS and other network-based technologies. With experience gained in Russia, Germany, UK, the US and various parts of Africa, he is directly involved with system design and implementation at enterprise level. His emphasis is on the evolution in network architectures brought about by the concept of cloud computing. May hosts regular workshops assisting South African dealers and resellers to understand the implications, complications, opportunities and international trends surrounding the cloud. A proponent of social networking for business, he is active on Facebook and makes extensive use of YouTube.

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