Putting VNFs to work


Network functions virtualization (NFV) makes it possible to replace traditional dedicated customer premise equipment with software in the form of virtual network functions (VNFs), running on standardized hardware. Despite the confusing acronym overlap of NFV and VNF, the technology is intended to vastly simplify enterprise wide area networking.

Virtualization and Cloud Review describes NFV as a younger cousin to software-defined networking: “Like SDN, NFV is fundamentally about the shift from proprietary hardware-based solutions to more open, software-based substitutes,” David Ramel explains.

For years, enterprises have lived under the tyranny of proprietary network devices that are costly and time-consuming to update or upgrade, making it difficult to open and close new offices, or quickly pursue new business opportunities.

As a result, enterprises are left trying to manage a jungle of appliances: boxes for firewalls, for WAN accelerators, routers and just about anything else critical to keeping branch locations in sync with corporate hubs. But here’s how VNFs are deployed and managed, in the case of AT&T: “We install a FlexWare Device on your premises, bring it online and manage it, just as we would a traditional managed network device, except that the FlexWare Device has the flexibility to be virtually any kind of network appliance – or appliances – that you want.”

Features on demand

Based on industry-standard hardware, those devices are no longer closed boxes, but platforms that can be updated virtually on demand. Instead of going through lengthy procurement and provisioning cycles, telecom administrators will be able to go to online portals and request updates, repurposing and upgrading of devices in place.

“Once online and activated, the FlexWare Device connects to the AT&T SDN-enabled cloud to receive the necessary software and thereafter assumes the identity of the installed FlexWare Applications,” AT&T explains. Better yet, those devices can host more than one VNF, depending on individual configuration requirements.

Not everybody in the industry is marching to the same drummer. “A few operators are pressing ahead with the transition, but most are daunted by the multiple challenges posed by NFV, and some are pausing investment while they wait for clearer direction from standardization bodies and their peers,” writes Caroline Chappell, lead analyst for Analysis Mason’s Software-Controlled Networking research.

Martina Kurth, research director for communications services provider (CSP) technology with Gartner, writes that SDN/NFV will change the DNA of industry players: “As CSPs move away from traditional network to cloud-based service delivery operations, this will fundamentally change the way they create, design and deliver services. Changes will cut across technology, operations, business strategy and organization as well as supplier and partnership models.”

Some carriers and service providers may be reluctant to cannibalize existing revenue streams, while others are trying to replicate legacy network appliances in a virtual model. On the other hand, writes long-time industry observer Carol Wilson, market leaders AT&T and Vodafone, are “insisting that any vendors wanting to be part of their major transformation efforts must start by delivering cloud-native virtual network functions.”

NFV is, after all, an effort to make enterprise WAN as easy to deploy and manage as cloud services such as infrastructure as a service and software as a service. That requires a fundamental shift from legacy practices of the past. For more insight into how AT&T is implementing NFV and VNFs, check out AT&T FlexWare.