What is Network Function Virtualisation (NFV)?


NFV or Network Function Virtualisation is the concept of replacing the dedicated network appliances (such as routers and firewalls within a business’s own premises) with separate software which takes on these roles but within commercial servers that are run and managed from a separate location. It was born in 2012 when the ‘NFV Call to Action’ document was introduced.

The aim of NFV is to transform the way communication service providers (CSPs) architect networks and deliver network services. Network operations are transformed in various network locations as needed, without requiring installation of new equipment.

NFV offers a number of major benefits to network providers over more traditional SDN (software Defined Networks).

Benefits of NFV

Lower Costs
Outlay on physical networking equipment and overhead costs of running and maintaining the network are significantly reduced with NFV. By utilising dedicated server centres, service providers no longer carry the costs associated with running the equipment. This saves them maintenance and staffing costs required and is one of the most significant benefits of NFV for service providers.

Hardware costs are reduced by using shared servers rather than hosting dedicated appliances and operational costs are reduced by having less equipment to maintain.

Increased Flexibility
The flexibility of NFV means that when service providers need to quickly deploy new or additional services, they don’t need to be physically installed and added to any existing physical infrastructure.

As newer consumption-based, pay-as-you-go models increase in popularity, businesses need to be able to scale their resources up and down depending on demand and existing fixed networks architecture are no longer flexible enough to cope with today’s networking needs.

NFV will provide the flexibility where existing fixed networks do not.

Increased Scalability
In order to adapt quickly to users’ changing usage needs as well as provide and offer new services, operators are able to use NFV to scale their network architecture across multiple servers rather than being restricted by one box.

This will become especially important as operators move into providing services for internet of things and similar technologies.

Security Improvements
Security continues to be a major challenge in networking and NFV could provide some improvement where existing physical infrastructure may not. Because operators want to have the flexibility to manage their networks whilst allowing clients and customers the ability to manage and run their own virtual space within the network it could potentially leave areas vulnerable to security threats.

Where NFV provides more control and flexibility to network operators, it enables security capabilities that are simply not possible or cost-effective in a traditional environment. For example, service providers can roll out tap-as-a-service capabilities, allowing them to see real-time traffic flows on more parts of the network than previously possible. Centralized control via SDN enables operators to have a real-time, global network view, which is useful for detecting network anomalies and increasing security.

Limitations of NFV

Like most new technologies that are introduced in the telecommunications industry, a large portion of improvements are made, but often with a few downsides to accompany them. Because NFV is a function of SDN, unfortunately it suffers from some of the same limitations.

Some of the specific challenges facing NFV going forward include:

  • Having to coexist in a cloud-integrated hybrid environment with physical devices can cause performance issues
  • Unlike conventional IT environments, NFV requires managing IT outside of the enterprises own premises, which removes an element of controllability
  • NFV environments are more dynamic than traditional ones, which might require scaling up with additional features to cope which adds costs to the business
  • NFV also demands a process realignment so that traditional and virtual infrastructure can be managed simultaneously

Meeting the challenges of NFV

Moving towards a full NFV transition is not something that will happen immediately, or possibly, ever. That’s because it may always be more beneficial for customers with high-scale requirements to run from a physical network. Instead, legacy networks that are currently in place within many organisations will continue to remain in place for a significant period of time.

The transition may also not be cheap or easy as existing infrastructure will need to be de-installed and removed. The key to this problem may well come from further acquisition of legacy equipment that lends itself to a next-generation migration by aligning with the demands of the new technologies.

In order to meet the requirements of a transition towards virtualization, architecture must provide:

  • Support for dynamic, real-time network and service changes in response to network events
  • Interworking with SDN controllers
  • Support for a modelling approach to network services
  • Interworking with network orchestration platforms
  • Separation of network configuration and management of network state

Moving forward

Although still in its early conception, NFV looks to be more widely adopted as a cheaper, more flexible and more scalable alternative to traditional infrastructure. It has already begun to converge with existing legacy equipment and we can be sure that it won’t be long before we see a large surge in NFV adoption.

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