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Is Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) Moving Closer to Reality?

July 23, 2014
Kerry Doyle


Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) is gaining momentum along with Software-Defined Networking (SDN). This paper examines the history of NFV and explores the prospects for networking to gradually evolve from a hardware-centric approach to a software-driven model. It concludes with an examination of future market implications and how NFV can help organizations to achieve their goals.



In the current computing environment, resource-intensive mobile apps achieve high efficiency because of virtualized servers and storage in the cloud. However, traditional networks are still manual, static, and complex. As a result, they're increasingly inadequate at handling the broad spectrum of demand, from big data to streaming media. For companies, data center virtualization has made on-demand compute power and instant scalability possible. Besides providing these organizations with CapEx and OpEx gains, virtualization helps diminish the IT burden, makes other data center innovations possible, and ensures steady resource access for end users.

Partly due to this trend, Network Virtualization (NV) and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) are gaining momentum along with Software-Defined Networking (SDN). It's useful to note that the division of the data and control planes, characteristic of SDN, essentially requires a completely new networking structure. In contrast, NV and NFV offer the ability to add services and functions on top of a pre-existing network. This is an important distinction because it points to the possibility of fast adoption speeds for NV and NFV, which can be used by any organization familiar with virtualization.

In this white paper, we'll look at the history of NFV and its origins. We'll also explore the prospects for networking to gradually evolve from a hardware-centric approach to a software-driven model. Finally, we'll examine future market implications and how NFV can help organizations to achieve their goals when almost any network function can be virtualized.

History of NFV

With the mobile trend and wireless connectivity enabling diverse online interactions, text and email are gradually being replaced by other forms, such as streaming multimedia. The major telecomm carriers have taken notice. They're at the forefront of an initiative created to meet rising demand: NFV.

The culmination of informal telecomm carrier discussions and a white paper presented in 2012, NFV leverages cloud methodologies and technology to increase network service capabilities. At the SDN & OpenFlow World Congress later that same year, the group announced its goals: to leverage standard IT virtualization technology to consolidate many network equipment types onto industry standard, high-volume servers, switches and storage.

The NSF Industry Specifications Group (ISG) was formed under the auspices of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), an independent, not-for-profit, standardization organization. The group's goal has been to devise the requirements for an NFV platform that network operators can strategically adopt.

The NFV technical working groups are concentrating on three key areas:

- NFV Use Cases: These include service models and high-level use cases to be addressed by NFV

- NFV Virtualization Requirements: Key operational protocols for achieving NFV goals, broken down into specific domains, such as infrastructure and software architecture and security

- End-to-end NFV Architecture: The framework dividing the NFV work activities based on prototypes

The process of decoupling virtualized functions from the underlying hardware presents a range of management challenges. They require solutions that involve NFV mapping, instantiating virtualized network functions (VNFs), allocating/scaling resources to VNFs, as well as monitoring and support of physical/software resources. A key hurdle involves the integration of virtualized switches, appliances, and services with existing, legacy systems.

NFV development will ultimately involve a re-formulation of Operations Support System (OSS) functions, crucial to telecomm carriers. Some believe incorporating NFV with the current OSS will require creating unique links based on the specific characteristics of individual operators.

This has implications for standardization, an area that presents the biggest challenge for virtually deploying network technology. The purpose of the ETSI NFV ISGs is to specify NFV platform requirements that can eventually be adopted by diverse network operators. However, these networking companies have environments that span broad operational, regulatory and technology requirements.

NFV and Network Agility

The point of NFV is that almost any network function can be virtualized. Moreover, these functions can run on a commodity telecomm platform made up of dedicated proprietary hardware. In order to understand the mechanics behind NFV, it's important to understand NV, a related but wholly distinct concept.

Simply put, NV creates logical virtual segments in an existing network. It allows systems administrators to create a "tunnel" through the network to connect two discrete domains. NV enables IT to make routing and other network changes on top of existing hardware.

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