All of us involved in networking understand the promised benefits of Network Functions Virtualization (NFV): it reduces the hardware, power, and space requirements to deploy network functions on industry-standard high-volume servers, switches and storage; it reduces provisioning times; it can be used to create smaller fault domains; it makes the applications portable and upgradeable with software; and so on.
NFV represents a bold step toward software-defined services and programmable networks, a step that will impact all aspects of the communications industry for years to come. With the market forecast to reach approximately $5 billion by 2018, according to Doyle Research, it would seem obvious that one cannot – or perhaps should not – ignore the opportunity.
But when talk of NFV hits the boardroom there’s a good chance you will receive no response from a series of blank faces. Or worse, irritated faces wondering why you are sermonizing about yet another “new” technology: “What is NFV? Is that like NFC? Near Field… Vision?” We can try to explain what NFV is, we can talk about getting ahead of the trends all we want, and we can discuss the merits from a networking perspective until we are blue in the face. But what matters most to the board is how NFV will help improve the bottom line, or maybe even the top. And sure enough, NFV is capable of delivering significant savings while opening a swathe of business opportunities and revenue.
For example, let’s take an enterprise that’s pitching for a short-term contract to work on behalf of the government. Most governments would insist on encrypting VPN traffic, but this isn’t the enterprise’s standard practice. This enterprise would be forced to deploy more hardware than normal, knowing full well it is only for a short time – but knowing also that those hardware costs don’t come on a pro-rated basis. The enterprise will be forced to pay the full price up-front…and that’s just to place it in the running for the contract.
Compare this to the enterprise that can deploy a Virtualized Network Function (VNF) to encrypt VPN traffic. It simply orders an encryption service for connectivity between its five sites for the two-month duration of the project, then its service provider downloads the encryption VNF to the nodes at the five sites, and ‘voila,’ the end-user has what it needs. And because this enterprise hasn’t tied itself to hardware, it’s opened up a door that might have been locked while also minimizing costs.
NFV also opens the door to quicker provisioning and installation of services that were typically considered only available from specialized hardware – because the hardware functionality has now been virtualized. Consider an enterprise service consisting of managed router and managed VPN components. Before NFV, these services would be delivered using two or three dedicated appliances installed on the enterprise customer’s site and connected to the carrier’s network across a Carrier Ethernet connection. If the IT manager needed an additional service, such as a managed firewall service, the carrier would dispatch a technician to install, configure, and test yet another bolt-on network appliance on-site.
With NFV, the enterprise IT manager simply logs onto a self-service portal, orders the additional managed firewall service, and the NFV software takes it from there. The portal sends a service order to the NFV system, which installs the firewall virtual function on an available virtual machine in the central office or Point of Presence (PoP). It then reconfigures the metro aggregation switch to steer the appropriate packet flows to the virtual function, and then updates the billing record in the back-office billing system.
NFV will no doubt be deployed more regularly in the enterprise as the years roll on, but it’s already gaining significant traction in the service provider space. For example, an enterprise customer can leverage a NFV platform to order and schedule a secure cloud service to process data, such as end-of-quarter orders. With NFV, the service provider network can be provisioned, delivered, managed, torn down and billed – all based on automated software programming.
Purely from a networking perspective, NFV deployment is a no-brainer: it ticks all the boxes when it comes to economics and provides a much richer service environment. But it’s only when we can demonstrate the business benefits rather than purely what it means for network improvements that we’ll see NFV become an integral part of operations like we know it will be.
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