Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) is a call to action for traditional Service Provider (Carrier Telcos) to adopt software virtualization and general purpose hardware especially for the networking pieces. The ideas for NFV are not new. What is new with NFV is the move away from proprietary hardware in some segments of their network.
Figure 1: Motivations for NFV
Virtualization is not a new concept; today Gartner estimates that more than 50% of the x86 server install base is virtualized. This trend is not limited to application virtualization: virtualized networking capabilities can also be deployed on non-proprietary server hardware and this is the crux of the NFV movement.
Virtualization provides the benefit of being able to host multiple applications on a single server, providing significant cost savings. However, for NFV the main impetus may not be ‘cost’ reduction although that is a major benefit of this approach. As an acquaintance inside one such large SP told me, SPs have millions to spend on traditional, proprietary gear. The reason, therefore, for the adoption of NFV is more for the speed with which services can be deployed due to the flexibility and agility of virtualization.
Traditional SPs are now looking at Amazon, Rackspace, and other Cloud Service Providers (CSP) and are working to adopt the CSP model without giving up their requirements for security, performance, and scale. The CSP model is a highly automated, highly orchestrated, virtualized system for deployment of Virtual Private Clouds. What makes the CSP model so attractive is its ability to provide services in innovative ways - and fast. CSPs can provide multi-tenancy in their Cloud Model with inbuilt security using VPN and firewalling. Most importantly, they are also providing Big Data tools to their customers for data analytics. This is not surprising, but indeed a smart move since they already collect tons of data. Their infrastructure gives them this ability to do data analytics natively and not as an afterthought which is characteristic of most traditional networks. For these reasons, the NFV movement is a validation of the CSP model.
Technical challenges for moving to NFV may pose a few obstacles. Dedicated and newer hardware is required to achieve faster speeds using SR-IOV (or PCI Passthrough). The need for dedicated servers stems from the fact that the NIC is tied to the interfaces of the virtual machine for higher throughput and performance (no virtual switches in between and therefore higher throughput). For maximized performance, newer servers with newer NICs that support SR-IOV are required. In addition to performance, higher Service Level Agreements (SLAs), stringent Quality of Service (QoS) requirements, and High Availability (HA) will be focus of the overall NFV effort.
An additional point to support NFV requirements is the idea that server and chip vendors can now provide reference architectures (e.g. Intel) and create a staging area for new innovation. NFV has the potential to create a new paradigm in the networking industry by enabling enterprises and SPs to speed up application and service delivery to their end customers. This is indeed a trend that is worth following.