Transforming the network with Network Functions Virtualization: 10 recommendations for service providers

In order to be successful in the fast paced Internet world, leading carriers must quickly introduce new services and reduce costs. Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) is a new technology enabling communications service providers (CSPs) to transform their networks. The goal of NFV is to help providers realize the innovation and cost curves enjoyed by the IT community.

NFV promises to lower equipment costs (capex) by migrating network functions from dedicated hardware appliances to software running on virtual machines on standard servers. NFV proponents also promise that the technology will reduce opex and enable CSPs to rapidly introduce new services via improved network flexibility and agility. (See "Network Functions Virtualization drives revolution in telecom network architectures" for more background on NFV.)

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

CSPs must move beyond their traditional ways of building networks and overcome the inhibitors of politics, regulations and their large bureaucracies to be successful. In order for NFV to truly impact the network and deliver on the promised benefits, here are 10 suggestions for the CSPs that have backed NFV standards:

  1. Collapse the timeline of standards efforts. The industry needs NFV standards now. Pick reference architectures to jump start NFV adoption -- by no later than the end of 2013.
  2. Be willing to try new ways of building the network. NFV is about software and change - not about building networks the same way as in the past.
  3. Relax telecom specific standards and equipment SLAs. If CSPs want the benefits of being like the IT industry (as promised by NFV), they must consider relaxing old, costly requirements such as NEBS, 99.999% uptime, and punishing SLAs for their NFV suppliers.
  4. Buy from emerging independent software suppliers. NFV innovation will not start with the traditional network equipment providers. In order for NFV to be successful, a software community must emerge that will provide innovation by trying new ways of enabling scalable, reliable network functions in software (see "The birth of the Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) ISV community").
  5. Rethink the traditional CSP (network vs. IT) organizational structure. Implementing NFV will require both networking and IT skill sets. The full vision of NFV will require coordination between the network, IT, and cloud organizations within large CSPs. CSPs will need to cross pollinate skill sets and break down internal organization resistance to NFV.
  6. Think about how NFV can enable new applications and sources of revenue. The best way to enable (internal) organizational support for NFV to show how it will lead to new sources of revenue.
  7. Tie the NFV transformation to CSP efforts to build new cloud services and enable agile OSS/BSS platforms. NFV must be part of the broader telecom transformation effort in large CSPs.
  8. Pick the right partners. In addition to supporting emerging ISVs, CSPs will need to pick an IT partner to help with the migration to NFV. CSPs should pick network partners that are fully committed to the NFV vision.
  9. CSPs must coalesce around common NFV solutions and use cases. The key benefit of NFV is standardization. If CSPs require their IT and network suppliers to customize NFV for their individual network requirements, then NFV will become fragmented (and less impactful).
  10. It is early days for NFV technology. It will take time for standards to develop and for NFV to mature. CSPs will need to commit significant resources and have the patience to learn from initial challenges for NFV to be a success in the longer term (five-plus years).

NFV is a key technology to transform CSP networks and enable new competitive agility. However, it falls under the motto of "no pain, no gain" for the carriers. NFV is not going to be quick or easy and will require significant technological maturity and organization change in the largest CSPs.

Lee Doyle is principal analyst at Doyle Research. Doyle Research provides targeted analysis on the Evolution of Intelligent Networks: SDN, NFV, 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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