Networking has always been a hardware-centric affair. Organizations purchase, implement and maintain a wide array of routers, switches, load balancers and other gear on a device-by-device basis. The result is a highly complex network environment that is difficult to manage and lacks the agility to meet today’s changing business demands.
That’s slowly changing as more organizations adopt network functions virtualization (NFV). As the name implies, NFV virtualizes networking capabilities, implementing them in software on industry-standard servers rather than dedicated, proprietary hardware appliances. A specialized hypervisor supports the software that enables virtualized network functions (VNFs), and a management framework handles the provisioning and orchestration of VNFs and controls the server resources that support them.
Developed by a group of telecom network operators, NFV has primarily been used by service providers. NFV enables carriers to provision services faster, make changes quickly, and deliver higher service levels at lower costs. In a 2016 IHS Markit study, 100 percent of service providers said they planned to implement NFV, although adoption has been slowed somewhat by onboarding challenges.
Today, enterprises are starting to embrace NFV due to increasing dependence on the cloud and the move toward edge computing. NFV is also a component of the larger trend toward “software-defined” network services.
However, NFV is distinct from software-defined networking (SDN) and software-defined WAN (SD-WAN). SDN separates the network control plane from data plane to enable centralized management, greater agility and policy based routing changes. SD-WAN provides similar capabilities at the WAN level. NFV delivers the functionality required to enable specific network services throughout the network infrastructure.
Like server virtualization, NFV helps to conserve capital, enable faster provisioning of applications and services, and create a more efficient, flexible and responsive environment.
NFV breaks the dependence on networking hardware, simplifying management and enabling anytime, anywhere control via a cloud-based orchestrator. As such, NFV helps to reduce network operational costs across the extended enterprise.
Some of the top value propositions for NFV include:
– Increased network automation. Network services can be programmatically configured based upon policy-based rules, and implemented via standards-based application programming interfaces (APIs).
– A more agile, future-proof network. Organizations can add, remove and change services with a few clicks in the orchestrator. VNFs can be upgraded at any time and scaled up or down as needed.
–Maximization of enterprise networking investments. Deploying network functions through software optimizes licensing and eliminates the need to overpay for equipment to obtain desired features or performance.
– Greater consistency and visibility. By developing a validated NFV reference architecture across all sites, organizations can create a ubiquitous networking platform and gain better insight into network health and performance.
– Improved branch network services. NFV allows organizations to collapse the “branch stack,” standardize branch networking hardware, and leverage cloud-based orchestration and management tools to reduce technician site visits.
– Enhanced edge resources. By placing virtual machines and containers at the edge, NFV enables the integration of low-latency compute resources to enhance the value of the network and deliver faster services from the cloud.
The NFV architecture includes hardware, virtualization, orchestration and application layers. The hardware, typically an x86-based server, must provide five 9s availability, extremely low latency and high performance. Several of the major vendors offer VNF software; there are also specialized solutions and open-source options.
Putting this all together is not easy. Organizations looking to implement NFV can benefit from partnering with an IT solution provider with specific expertise in enterprise networking. Rahi’s networking practice can help you develop a network modernization strategy and determine specific use cases that could benefit from NFV.