Network Functions Virtualization drives revolution in telecom network architectures

Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) has the potential to advance significant change in the way telecom networks are built and operated. Led by seven major communications service providers, NFV provides a standards-based approach to virtualizing a range of telecom applications, thus enabling them to run on industry standard servers.

Advances in IT technology, including more powerful processors (e.g., Intel x86 and Cavium), faster switching fabrics (e.g., 40GB), and advances in network software (e.g., SDN) have brought a wealth of network functions in scope for commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment. NFV proponents hope to virtualize a wide range of network elements, including:

  • Mobile core networks
  • Deep packet inspection (DPI)
  • Session boarder controllers (SBC)
  • Security appliances (firewalls, IDS/IPS, SSL VPNs)
  • Server load balancers
  • WAN acceleration

[ MORE: Mobile carriers, vendors eager to virtualize networks ]

Not all network elements are ripe for conversion to the NFV/COTS model. Network products that support very low-latency, high-performance data transport will continue to be sold as integrated (box) systems and be powered by proprietary ASICs. These elements include optical networks and high-performance switch/routers.

Service providers hope accelerated adoption of NFV will dramatically reduce both the cost of building their networks (capex) and the cost of network operations (opex). A range of network providers, including Ericsson, Juniper, Huawei, Radisys, Intel/WindRiver and NEC, have begun to discuss their plans to deliver on their customers (CSPs) requests for NFV.

On the technology front, there remain several challenges to widespread NFV adoption, including:

  • Delivering standards-based, highly scalable COTS servers and high-availability middleware that meet the performance, reliability and availability requirements of the service providers.
  • Implementing NFV elements which interoperate not only with each other, but also with network elements in the installed (legacy) networks. This includes links to existing telecom OSS/BSS systems.
  • Automation of the management and orchestration features of NFV applications.
  • Ensuring the security of the network is not compromised by the introduction of NFV technologies.

In addition, NFV will create business model challenges, specifically how the leading network equipment providers charge for their products. Currently, the majority of the $100 billion-plus market for telecom equipment is sold as integrated systems with applications running on proprietary high-availability middleware and optimized hardware platforms. Migrating to an applications software model will be highly disruptive to existing revenue streams and profit margins.

NFV offers significant potential to change the way that service providers architecture future networks, including increased flexibility and lower costs. Driving widespread adoption of NFV over the next two to four years will require significant cooperation and partnership by the leading service providers and their IT/equipment suppliers.

Lee Doyle is principal analyst at Doyle Research. Doyle Research provides targeted analysis on the Evolution of Intelligent Networks: SDN, OPEX, and COTS. Lee Doyle has over 28 years experience analyzing the IT, network and telecom markets. For more information please see doyle-research.com, email me at ldoyle@doyle-research.com, and follow me on Twitter @leedoyle_dc.

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